An Open Letter to the Druid Community ©2004 by John Michael Greer. All rights reserved.
As members of the Druid community in the first decade of the 21st century, we need to face up to the hard realities of a world in crisis. The soaring energy prices and destabilizing climate that claim space in today’s headlines are only the leading edge of a wave of problems offering no easy solutions. Distinguished scientists are warning that the global environment on which we depend for survival is spinning dangerously out of balance, while demand for the resources that fuel our industrial society is outrunning the Earth’s remaining supplies. It’s a recipe for a difficult future.
These events come as a surprise only to those who haven’t been paying attention. In 1972 the Club of Rome published an epochal study, The Limits to Growth, showing that if industrial society didn’t change course, it would collide disastrously with ecological limits sometime in the first half of the 21st century and come unraveled. The threat they foresaw isn’t a single problem with a simple solution. It unfolds from the inevitable collision between infinite economic growth and a finite planet.
The Earth is finite, and only has room to hold so much oil, so much coal, so much fertile soil — and so many people. Economists with no background in environmental science often insist that economic growth will make up for these limits. The Limits to Growth and dozens of other studies, though, showed that in a finite environment, the costs of resource depletion and pollution driven by economic growth ultimately rise faster than growth itself. As the demands of a growth-oriented industrial society go past the limits of sustainability into what ecologists call overshoot, rising demand for resources overreaches what natural sources can supply, while rising outputs of pollution overloads what natural systems can absorb. In the end, the costs of growth overwhelm growth itself and bring industrial society to its knees.
Caught between rising costs and shrinking resources, a society in overshoot faces an impossible dilemma: it has to feed, clothe, and house its work force, maintain and replace its industrial plant and infrastructure, and keep drawing down natural resources to fuel and feed its economy, all at an ever increasing rate, while costs spin out of control and resources run short. The result isn’t the end of the world, or the sort of Hollywood apocalypse that features in so many fantasies about the future. The collision between an economy in overshoot and the limits of a finite world doesn’t add up to a return to the Stone Age or a Road Warrior future; it adds up to what social critic James Kunstler calls the Long Emergency, a slow, difficult transition from modern industrial civilization to the sustainable civilizations of the future.
The great energy debates of the 1970s centered on this prospect. Many other studies tested the findings of The Limits to Growth and verified them, while ecologists, engineers, and organic farmers worked out key elements of a conserver society that could sustain advanced technology within the Earth’s limits. A gradual transition to a conserver society could have been launched in the 1970s with minimal economic and social disruption. Unfortunately, this wasn’t done. A series of disastrous miscalculations on the part of politicians and ordinary people alike wasted the decades that might have made the difference. Now, thirty years later, we’re facing the consequences.
The Arrival of the Limits
The Limits to Growth came in for a firestorm of criticism, much of it politically motivated and not all of it fair or well informed. Pro-growth advocates in recent years have taken to labeling it “disproved.” Yet as the 21st century opens, the limits to growth are arriving on schedule. Oil production is falling short of demand, and a growing number of petroleum scientists agree that the Hubbert peak — the point at which half the Earth’s oil reserves have been depleted and oil production begins its irrevocable decline, as predicted by geologist M. King Hubbert decades ago — is less than five years away, and may arrive as soon as this year.
Many people insist that market forces and increased investment are all we need to get more oil, but we’ve already had a trial run of that approach here in America and it didn’t work. The lower 48 states hit their Hubbert peak in 1970. After a decade of waffling between different options, the US gambled its future on a free market solution, using huge investments, tax policies that amount to a trillion-dollar giveaway to oil corporations, and the best oil exploration and production technology in the world to increase production. Yet production has steadily declined. Some limits, it turns out, aren’t flexible no matter how much money is thrown at them.
Declining oil production all by itself is a serious matter, because the industrial way of life runs on oil. Modern civilization demands fantastic amounts of energy, and oil is nearly the perfect energy source: there was a huge amount of it to start with, it contains plenty of energy per unit of volume, it can be extracted from the ground cheaply, it’s very easy to transport and store, it’s even easier to use, and it’s fungible — it can be put to work in many ways; you can use it to produce heat, power motors, fuel cars or planes, generate electricity, or anything else you want. Oil provides 40% of global energy and nearly all transportation outside the Third World, and it’s also the essential feedstock for plastics, lubricants, asphalt roads, and most chemicals used in industry and agriculture.
Oil is also irreplaceable, because every other energy source has severe problems with concentration, transport, supply, fungibility, or net energy — the amount of energy you have left after you subtract the amount of energy you have to put into getting it. Hydrogen, for example, has zero net energy — you have to put as much energy into manufacturing hydrogen out of water as you get back from burning it. Many proposed “energy sources” have negative net energy; oil shale, for example, takes the equivalent of two barrels of oil to extract a single barrel of usable oil. Any way you cut it, it’s a losing proposition.
Still, petroleum shortages aren’t the only problem we face. Other fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, and conventional nuclear fuels such as uranium, are just as subject to depletion as oil, they’re already well on their way to depletion, and they face special problems of their own. Coal can’t be burned in any quantity without massive increases in the amount of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere; such an increase risks tipping the Earth’s weather system into chaos and launching massive climate shifts that would cripple agriculture around the globe. Natural gas is being used up rapidly; in fact, North America faces natural gas shortages in the next few years. Uranium reserves are depleted worldwide and will not last much longer than oil.
More insidious is the fact that all other fuels receive a hidden “energy subsidy” from oil. The equipment that mines, ships, and processes coal, for example, is powered by oil, not coal; converting it to burn coal would entail high costs and cut drastically into coal’s net energy, since coal has only a third the energy per volume as oil. Thus as oil runs out, coal reserves have to be drawn down even faster merely to maintain current levels of coal production. Attempt to replace oil by coal using coal-powered technology, and seemingly huge coal reserves run out rapidly.
Exotic sources such as breeder reactors, nuclear fusion, and the like have often been touted as replacements for oil. So have massive programs of renewable energy. None of these have been tested on a large scale, all of them have serious problems with feasibility or net energy that haven’t yet been solved, and converting an oil-based society to any of them would require huge amounts of money, resources, and time — all of which will be in very short supply once oil production peaks and begins its irrevocable decline. If the conversion had been launched in the 1970s, it probably could have been done. At this point, the window of opportunity is closed.
Meanwhile fresh water is running short through most the world’s arable regions; environmental damage to the world’s limited supply of topsoil has intersected with rising populations to push the global food supply to the edge of crisis, while fisheries that feed hundreds of millions of people are dwindling past the point of no return. Attempts by politicians to dismiss the threat of global warming are crashing headlong into ecological reality: the number and severity of storms worldwide has increased steadily each year for the last decade, and the West Antarctic ice sheet — which contains enough water to raise sea level 15 to 18 feet worldwide — began to break apart last year.
Thus modern industrial civilization has backed itself into a corner. It depends on an ever-growing supply of energy and other resources, and as global population continues to soar, climate spins further and further out of balance, ecological cycles break down, and once-reliable technologies turn out to have unexpected weaknesses and disastrous side effects, more and more energy will be needed to counter these problems. Yet “more and more energy” is precisely what we can’t count on. Instead, we need to get by on less and less energy, at least until some new energy source can be brought online — if that’s even possible. Thus, just as The Limits to Growth predicted some thirty years ago, we are caught in a head-on collision between rising needs and dwindling resources, with six billion lives hanging in the balance.
The Failure Of Politics
Many people who have faced up to the hard realities of the situation have urged some form of political action as a response to it. The problem is that this has been tried for more than 30 years, and for all practical purposes nothing has been accomplished. We’re further from an effective political response to the situation than we were in 1975, and it’s crucial to understand why.
Our society demands energy and resource inputs on a scale, absolute and per capita, that can’t possibly be maintained for more than a few decades longer. The energy sources that will still be available in the future can only provide a small fraction of the net energy we’re used to getting from the abundant fossil fuels of the recent past. As energy resources dwindle, in other words, everybody is going to have to get used to living on a small fraction of the energy, and the products of energy, we’ve been using as a matter of course.
This has implications few people take the time to think through. Consider a cup of coffee. The energy needed to run the coffee maker is a tiny portion of the total fossil fuel-derived energy and materials that go into the process. Unless the coffee is organically grown, chemical fertilizers and pesticides derived from oil are used to produce the beans; diesel-driven farm machinery harvests them; trucks, ships, and trains powered by one form of oil or another move them much of the way around the world from producer to consumer, stopping at various fossil-fuel-heated or -cooled storage facilities and fossil-fuel-powered factories en route; consumers in the industrial world drive to brightly lit and comfortably climate-controlled supermarkets on asphalt roads to bring back plastic-lined containers of ground coffee to their homes. In order to drink coffee by the cup, we use oil by the barrel.
This is exactly the sort of thing that can’t be sustained much longer. We — and by this I mean people throughout the industrial world — are going to have to make the transition to something not far from a Third World lifestyle. There’s no way to sugar-coat that very unpalatable reality. In the last century, fossil fuels and energy-consuming technology made it possible for most Americans and Europeans to embrace lifestyles that don’t require constant physical labor, and allowed them to wallow in a flood of consumer goods. As the limits to growth squeeze industrial society and force a transition to less energy intensive lifestyles, all of that is going to go away. How many people are willing to listen to such a suggestion? More to the point, how many would be willing to vote for a candidate or a party that proposed deliberately bringing these changes now, so that a worse crisis could be prevented further down the road?
John Kenneth Galbraith has written a brilliant, mordant book, The Culture of Contentment, about the reasons why America is incapable of constructive change. He compares today’s American political class (those people who vote and involve themselves in politics) to the French aristocracy before the Revolution. Everybody knew that the situation was insupportable, and that eventually there would be an explosion, but the immediate costs of doing something about it were so unpalatable that it was easier to do nothing and hope that things would somehow work out. His points can be applied equally well to the political class of every industrial country.
Thus in 1992, the same team that did the original Limits to Growth study ran the numbers again with current figures and pointed out that the industrial world was much closer to collapse than it had been twenty years before. Their book Beyond the Limits urged an emergency program to stave off disaster. They pointed out, however, that the level of cuts in energy and resource use necessary to stave off disaster would require the American people to accept a reduction of their average standard of living to that of Brazil. No politician or political party anywhere has advocated that, for obvious reasons. It’s hard to think of a better recipe for political suicide.
Of course another form of government intervention in the energy situation is military, and it’s no secret that access to oil has played an important part in recent global politics. Still, quarrelling over the last drops of oil won’t make any more oil, and wastes energy, resources, and time that might go into more useful responses. Warfare also doesn’t necessarily work; the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions put American troops in control of the world’s last remaining undeveloped oil fields, but failed to make peace or secure access to oil, and these military adventures have pushed America into exactly the sort of imperial overstretch that Paul Kennedy warned about in his widely respected book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.
So while it may be appealing to fantasize about government programs (or military adventures) bailing us out of the present predicament, such daydreams don’t offer a practical way out of the situation. The thing that must be realized is that there is no practical way out of the situation. The collision between industrial society and ecological reality predicted in The Limits to Growth now defines our future. Industrial civilization is ending, and the road to the new civilizations of the future is going to be a rocky one.
The Long Emergency is a process that may take two centuries or more, and it’s already under way. We’re already seeing substantial declines in the real standard of living for most Americans and many people elsewhere in the industrialized world. We’ll see quite a bit more in the next few years, especially if the economic juggling act that props up trillions of dollars of paper debt in America and elsewhere gives way. As standards of living slip, energy-dependent jobs become ever scarcer, public health declines, and political and economic institutions become steadily more dysfunctional, people are going to have to meet their own needs and care for each other in ways the developed world forgot more than a century ago.
And this is where the Druid community has an extraordinary opportunity to help shape the future of the deindustrial world.
The Role Of Druidry
Not quite two thousand years ago, as another civilization came apart at the seams, a religious group responded to the crisis of its time by carrying out a salvage operation on what was left of its society’s cultural heritage, preserving thousands of important books, along with crucially important artistic, architectural, technical, and scientific knowledge. Behind the walls of Christian monasteries in Ireland and elsewhere, scriptoria held the remnants of Greek and Roman learning in trust, and when the chaos of Rome’s decline finally settled out, these surviving books and skills became the foundation of new societies throughout the Western world. The same thing has happened elsewhere and in other times.
Such a role in the present crisis is one that modern Druids are well equipped to fill. Followers of a spiritual path in harmony with the world of living nature, drawing inspiration from societies whose values are radically different from those of today’s Earth-ravaging consumer cultures, today’s Druids have already learned crucial lessons that industrial society has ignored to its cost: the holiness of the living Earth and all its creatures; the necessity for human life to find a place of balance within a wider sphere of spiritual and material powers; the practical worth as well as the spiritual importance of primary values such as honor, generosity, creativity, and community; the futility and irrelevance of a system that treats endless accumulation of material trinkets as the highest goal of human life. Many Druids already practice ways of raising food, making goods, healing illnesses, and building community which harmonize with nature’s cycles and do not depend on the wasteful use of rapidly depleting fossil fuels. Each Druid who does so — who plants and tends a garden with hand tools and organic methods, who weaves cloth or forges iron using traditional skills, who heals body and mind with herbs and other natural means, who passes on stories and songs from the past — is not only following a valid spiritual path for today, but helping to build a bridge to the future. Yet we can go beyond this, as individuals, as local groves and circles, and as an international community of Druids.
Of course many other spiritual traditions have their own places in the present crisis, and it may be that each Earth-honoring spiritual path will have its own unique task to fulfill as industrial civilization approaches its end. By singling out Druidry I mean no disrespect to these other paths. It is simply that the Druid path is the path I follow, and I am familiar with its potentials and the gifts it has to offer. Ultimately I can only speak to what I know. Those readers of this letter who walk other paths will need to assess the points made here in the terms of their own traditions, and respond accordingly.
Thus I offer this vision — the vision of Druidry as a force for continuity and healing in a time of disintegration — as a viable path for the Druid community in the future that presses upon us. It may be a difficult vision to follow in the coming years, as crises multiply and passions rise. The pressure toward political action will mount as troubles proliferate, and people on all sides of the political spectrum will doubtless find reasons to point the finger of blame ever more forcefully at their opponents; the quest for scapegoats is a constant temptation in difficult times. Still, even the most single-minded political activists need to recognize that something else must be ready to bear the burden of the future if their efforts don’t succeed. The approaching transformation requires people, groups, and communities to be ready to preserve legacies for the future, so that as the vast tottering structure of industrial civilization comes apart, seeds can be planted that will bear fruit in times to come. I suggest that the Druid community prepare itself to fill that role, and to save and plant those seeds.
Some people may claim that such proposals are morally repugnant because they accept the unacceptable. These criticisms miss the point. Drivers do everything they can to avoid a crash, but there are situations in which one can’t be avoided; thus we have protective devices such as seatbelts to help mitigate the effects of a crash. There’s an important difference between a crash in which the car is destroyed but the passengers walk away, and a crash in which the passengers are thrown through the windshield head first. The same principle applies here and now. It’s impossible at this point to prevent the industrial age from ending, and the best guess of many experts is that it’s impossible at this point to manage a controlled transformation to sustainability, even if modern societies had the political will and leadership in place to do so — which they clearly don’t. That means we face a future of crisis and uncontrolled decline. Yet when prevention is impossible, mitigation may still be an option, and in the present situation I believe that it’s the only option that makes moral or practical sense.
Nor are all possible deindustrial societies of the future equal. It’s possible to have a cultured, literate, relatively humane society with thriving cities and a vigorous exchange economy on a very limited resource basis. During the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), Japan closed its borders to the outside world in a successful effort to keep from being swallowed by European colonial empires. With few natural resources, Tokugawa Japan ran almost entirely on human muscle power. Yet this was one of the great periods of Japanese art, literature and philosophy; literacy was so widespread that the three largest cities in the country had 1500 bookstores among them, and most people had access to basic education, health care, and the necessities of life. Helping to foster the birth of such a society in the aftermath of the industrial age is a goal within reach, and one that resonates profoundly with the ideals and traditions of Druidry.
Steps Toward A Livable Future
How might Druids prepare themselves to help create such a future? There are many different contributions that can be made to help build the sustainable societies of the deindustrial age, but three crucial needs have to be met if disaster is to be averted. First, natural ecosystems have to be preserved and restored as much as possible, to maintain the natural “safety net” on which all human survival ultimately depends. Second, people need to be able to feed themselves without damaging the earth and without relying on energy-intensive technologies that will soon be gone forever. Third, methods of natural, low-tech healing need to be available to treat diseases and maintain health when today’s high-tech medicine can no longer be supported by a disintegrating industrial society. On the basis of these three needs, I propose three essential elements of a Druid strategy for the deindustrial future.
First, I invite all Druids to learn the essentials of environmental science and natural history, practice the skills of restoring and maintaining natural ecosystems, and teach these to others. Human life depends on the surrounding natural world, to an extent that industrial civilization has forgotten but the deindustrial civilizations of the future will have to remember. Stable, healthy, and vibrant local ecosystems play a crucial role in maintaining climate, managing water resources, providing pollinators and pest control for agriculture, and many other processes without which human life is impossible. By learning and practicing the arts of practical ecology, today’s Druids can take an active role in healing the damage industrial civilization has done to the living earth, and can help shape healthy ecosystems that will support our great-grandchildren and their great-grandchildren.
Second, I invite all Druids to learn, practice, and teach the skills of at least one method of ecologically sound, human-powered farming. The ability to feed people sustainably without wrecking the Earth will be the bottom line of human survival in the future. Modern organic farming has made revolutionary advances, to the extent that it’s possible to feed one person a spare but adequate diet year round on 1000 square feet of soil, while increasing the fertility of the soil and the viability of local ecosystems the whole time. Other natural approaches to food production such as permaculture are equally worth careful attention from today’s Druids. By learning how to feed themselves by their own efforts without harming the Earth, and teaching others to do the same, today’s Druids can lay the most crucial foundation for the sustainable civilizations of the future, and provide a desperately needed safety net for the inevitable breakdown of petroleum based industrial agriculture.
Third, I invite all Druids to learn, practice, and teach the skills of at least one system of natural healing. Modern medicine is one of the most energy-intensive aspects of industrial civilization, and it suffers from many of the same flaws that have made industrial civilization itself unsustainable. Meanwhile, global warming and ecosystem disruption risks introducing new diseases to an overcrowded and increasingly vulnerable world, even as antibiotic resistance spreads rapidly among existing microbes. The ability to treat wounds, cure diseases, and provide useful health advice, without drawing on the resources of a functioning industrial society, will be literally lifesaving in years to come. By developing these skills now and being prepared to share them with others, today’s Druids can be ready to fill a vital role in making the future less bitter than it will otherwise be.
Of course there are many other things worth saving, within and beyond today’s Druid traditions. The three branches of knowledge I’ve proposed here represent a core curriculum that can be built upon in many ways. The skills and traditions of pre- and nonindustrial cultures are well worth learning and practicing in this context. Another source of valuable knowledge is the appropriate technology movement of the 1970s, which developed a wealth of simple, effective technologies that could contribute much to the deindustrial future. Druids today might consider studying and practicing at least one skill relevant to a deindustrial society, over and above the three essential branches of knowledge outlines above. Many Druids today practice such skills already, so the foundations are already there.
Those who are familiar with other proposals for dealing with the approaching crisis may be surprised that I haven’t mentioned firearms, for example, or isolated rural hideouts, or stockpiles of precious metals. This isn’t accidental. Such proposals are based on Hollywood fantasies of overnight collapse and mass death that have nothing to do with the slow, difficult reality of decline and transformation we’re facing. They’re also rooted in the core delusion of modern industrial culture, the fantasy that if you just own enough of the right possessions, everything will be all right. Past examples of the decline and fall of civilizations show that this is consistently a losing bet; those whose value lies in what they have in their stockpiles can count on attracting many others who want to remove them and enjoy the stockpiles themselves, and eventually the ammo runs out. If your value consists of important skills that benefit others as well as yourself, on the other hand, you’re everyone’s friend. This isn’t simply speculation; even in the most violent cultures of the past, such as the pirate societies of the 17th-century Caribbean, people with necessary skills such as physicians and navigators led charmed lives because it was in everyone’s best interest to keep them alive and happy.
Learning and practicing such skills can’t be left until the first wave of crises hits, however. An astonishing number of people in the industrial world, especially in the educated middle class, have no practical skills whatsoever when it comes to growing and preparing food, making clothing, and providing other basic necessities. An equally astonishing number are unable to travel any distance at all by any means that doesn’t involve burning fossil fuels. Most can’t even light a fire to keep warm or cook food without matches or butane lighters from a distant factory. Critical skills such as practical ecology, organic gardening, low-tech medicine, basic hand crafts, and the like need to be learned and practiced now, while there’s time and leisure to make beginner’s mistakes.
These proposals can be pursued most effectively by individuals, families, small groups, informal networks, and voluntary communities — that is to say, by the forms of organization at which today’s Druid movement excels. They don’t require government or corporate involvement, or the participation of a majority of people in the developed world or any of the communities that comprise it. One person can contribute mightily to any of them — say, by planting an organic garden and teaching others how to do so, by working together with other Druids to heal local ecosystems and preserve endangered medicinal plants, by helping to weave together local Druid networks, and by providing a vision of hope and possibility during a time when many people will see only hardship and despair.
It must be said that none of these suggestions will keep the approaching age from being a difficult, dangerous, profoundly challenging period of wrenching transformation, human suffering, and potential tragedy. Yet it’s possible for such a time to be better than it might otherwise be; it’s possible to lay foundations for a brighter age to come, and to practice and teach things that will make the difficulties of the deindustrial age easier to bear and bring its potential rewards within reach. This last concept may seem strange, but for those who embrace the future that lies before us, who accept its limits and work with its possibilities, the next few centuries will have their rewards — and some of those will far more real and lasting than the material wealth doled out by today’s industrial system.
This is my vision for a future we as Druids can seek to build: a society emerging from the Long Emergency of the deindustrial age, enriched with green knowledge and Earth-honoring skills brought through by successors of 21st-century Druids who saw what was coming and took action while there was still time. Some people in the Druid community may not welcome such a vision; some may still believe in the mythology of perpetual progress, or imagine that infinite material growth is possible on a finite planet, or insist that there’s nothing wrong with our present society that can’t be fixed by getting one set of politicians out of power and another set in. I disagree, and offer this vision to those who may find it — as I do — a valid source of hope and possibility in a dark time.
The following websites provide facts and figures to back up the image of the future outlined above. They make disturbing reading, though not half so disturbing as the unwillingness of political and business leaders to face the future that today’s choices are shaping.
Other articles by John Michael Greer on the same subject available online are these:
The Coming of Deindustrial civilization: A Practical Response
Facing the New Dark Age: A Grassroots Approach
The Long Road Down: Decline and the Deindustrial Future
How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse