by John Michael Greer
(originaly published at The Archdruid Report)
Peak oil – and indeed the whole contemporary crisis of industrial civilization – is simply one more excuse for disaffected Americans to dream about doing what their equivalents have dreamed about doing for the last three centuries or so. That the dream so rarely translates into attempts to make it a reality, though, has a tolerably simple explanation, and its name is the Sixties. Many people alive today remember what happened when large numbers of white, middle-class young people left the urban centers where the counterculture had its roots and tried to build a new society in communes scattered across rural America.
It was a grand experiment but, on the whole, a failed one, and the root cause of its failure is instructive. Of the many thousands of young communards who headed back to the land, vanishingly few of them had the least idea how much sheer hard work it takes to grow one’s own food and provide the other necessities of life by one’s own efforts, and not many more had even the most basic skills needed to tackle that technically complex and demanding task. A little pottering around in garden beds with a copy of a half-read book in one hand won’t do the trick. Idyllic fantasies of living the good life in the lap of nature thus collided head on with the hard reality that life in a fossil-fueled industrial economy really is much easier than subsistence farming in Third World conditions. Caught in this collision, most of the communes of the Sixties either figured out how to batten off the larger society through welfare, drug dealing, or some other sideline, or simply let out a few bubbles and sank once the first bright rush of idealistic enthusiasm wore off.
The same challenge faces potential lifeboat communities in a world perched unsteadily on the brink of peak oil. Anyone who wants to pursue rural self-sufficiency needs to check their desire for a modern American lifestyle at the door, and embrace a standard of living fairly close to that of a Third World peasant. Given competent training, rigorous practice, and a high tolerance for hard physical labor day in and day out, a group of healthy adults can keep themselves and their dependents adequately fed, clothed, housed, and equipped with necessary tools, with a little left over for barter or sale; for thousands of years this has been the standard human lifestyle over most of the world, and once the brief era of fossil-fueled extravagance we call modern industrial civilization is over, it will likely be the standard human lifestyle once again. Compared to the relative ease, comfort, opportunity and abundance of a modern middle-class lifestyle, though, the lot of a subsistence farmer is fairly hard going.
If the industrial world faced the sort of quick linear decline imagined by so many pundits of the Seventies and the present day, the transition from a modern lifestyle to a sustainable one would be much easier. Faced with the certain loss of familiar comforts and a future getting steadily worse than the present, many people could come to terms with the difficulties of subsistence farming and learn to enjoy the acquired taste of its pleasures. As I suggested in last week’s post and elsewhere, though, this luxury isn’t one we can count on.
Instead, the most likely course for the decline and fall of industrial civilization is a cyclic process, in which periods of respite and partial recovery punctuate the downward curve that leads into the dark ages of the deindustrial future. The cycles of sustainability outlined in last week’s post pose a daunting challenge for potential lifeboat communities. How many people could maintain their commitment to the hard labor and sparse rewards of a subsistence lifestyle in a period like the Eighties, when energy prices are dropping, supplies seem abundant, and the lessons of the previous energy crisis become at least temporarily irrelevant? If the arrival of significant declines in world petroleum production triggers economic contraction, and thus undercuts the demand for petroleum, another interval like the Eighties is among the most likely outcomes.
What all this suggests is that the central problem that proposed lifeboat communities must tackle is one of motivation. This same suggestion might have been drawn from the historical parallel that undergirds the entire project. The Christian monasteries that preserved classical culture through the last set of dark ages, after all, were not staffed by people trying to preserve some semblance of a middle-class Roman lifestyle while the world fell apart around them. Quite the opposite—the monks and nuns who copied old texts, taught at abbey schools, and kept the lamps of Western civilization burning when they were at their lowest ebb since Mycenae’s fall voluntarily embraced a lifestyle even more impoverished and restricted than that of the peasants among whom they lived. The same point is equally true of the Buddhist and Taoist monastics who accomplished the same vital task in other places and times. Arguably, it was precisely this willingness to embrace extreme poverty that freed up the time and effort needed for the economically unproductive activities needed to keep the heritage of a civilization alive.
The motivating factors that guided the followers of Benedict of Nursia, Kobo Daishi, and Chang Daoling, then, may be among the crucial missing pieces in current debates about lifeboat communities, and indeed the entire contemporary crisis of industrial civilization. To explore this possibility, we’re going to have to take a hard look at one of the least understood and, admittedly, most dysfunctional aspects of modern culture, and talk about the place of religion in a response to peak oil.