While researching a series of articles exploring land use in the 21st century, I thought it would be good to break the drought in blog posts and share some of the key texts I am reading and rereading as part of my enquiries. As the hashtag at the start of this title suggests, this is the first in a series of book reviews, summaries and reading lists exploring the wider dark green theory informing the Dark Green Aotearoa project. The first review and recommendation is for John Michael Greer’s The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age - One of my go-to books when someone asks me if I have a good introduction to the age of limits.
The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age by John Michael Greer
While many commentators fall into the trap of apocalyptic or utopian extremes when discussing potential future scenarios, independent scholar John Micheal Greer (JMG) remains level-headed and offers a more nuanced account of the future landscape we are most likely to traverse. Drawing on the science of physics and ecology and the lessons of history, JMG gently reminds us about what is possible given the limits of our physical universe and what is probable in light of how previous populations of people and cultures have responded to the predictable rise and fall of civilisations.1
The Long Descent is the book JMG wrote to describe his theory of catabolic collapse for a general audience. The theory of catabolic collapse 2 draws together environmental and cultural theories of collapse to describe a gradual decline in social and environmental prosperity over several generations, punctuated by sudden crises and periods of partial recovery. “The fall of a civilization is like tumbling down a slope, not like falling off a cliff. It’s not a single massive catastrophe, or even a series of lesser disasters, but a gradual slide down statistical curves of lesser disasters, that will ease modern civilization into history’s dumpster”. 3
Three main takeaways from this book stand out for me. Firstly, The Long Descent is a predicament, not a problem. This is important because a problem has a solution, whereas a predicament doesn’t have a solution, only a response. JMG writes: “Faced with a predicament, people come up with responses. Those responses may succeed, they may fail, or they may fall somewhere in between, but none of them “solves” the predicament, in the sense that none of them makes it go “away.” 4 The second takeaway is that collapse is not a discrete event like an earthquake; it is an intergenerational process like a mountain eroding into the sea - the process can be slowed down but never fully stopped or reversed. The third takeaway is that the process of collapse is not something that is going to start at some point in the distant future; it has already started 5 and will continue for many generations to come, hence the ‘long’ descent, and because the process is drawn out over such long periods of time relative to a human lifespan, we will not typically experience collapse day to day, it will be discernible if you pay attention, but most of the time you will not notice it at all.
Ultimately, civilisations tend to draw down more resources than the local environment can sustain for long periods, and they regularly overextend themselves by building more physical things like roads, bridges and buildings, and creating more social structures such as legal frameworks and financial institutions, than can be maintained over time. At some point, the costs to maintain the physical infrastructure and service the social institutions outweigh the benefits they provided when they were first created. At this point, the long descent kicks in, and the options for civilisations become increasingly limited over time.
Here is an extended extract from The Long Descent that provides a much better overview of the process than I can give justice to:
“The drivers of the process underlying the Long Descent is the mismatch between the maintenance costs of all of a societies physical and social infrastructure a society has built up around itself - buildings, roads, electrical networks, information resources, trained personnel, health care systems, legal institutions, superannuation, etc. and the resources that are available to meet those costs. All of the things a society invests in order for it to continue to serve the community, and as a society grows they add to their supporting infrastructure and the maintenance cost goes up. This process continues until the overhead of the maintenance can’t be supported any more and so the maintenance needs of the infrastructure and the rest of the society’s stuff gradually build up until they reach a level that can’t be covered by the resources on hand. This is true of all previous civilisations and it is worse for those societies that build its infrastructure and maintain it with non-renewable resources… The only reliable way to solve a crisis that’s caused by rising maintenance costs is to cut those costs, and the most effective way of cutting maintenance needs is to tip some fraction of the stuff that would otherwise have to be maintained into the nearest available dumpster. That’s rarely popular, and many complex societies resist it as long as they possibly can, but once it happens the usual result is at least a temporary resolution of the crisis. Now of course the normal human response to the end of a crisis is the resumption of business as usual, which in the case of a complex society generally amounts to amassing more stuff. Thus the normal rhythm of history in complex societies cycles back and forth between building up, or anabolism, and breaking down, or catabolism… That’s catabolic collapse… The usual result is the stair step sequence of decline that’s traced by the history of so many declining civilizations—half a century of crisis and disintegration, say, followed by several decades of relative stability and partial recovery, and then a return to crisis; rinse and repeat, and you’ve got the process that turned the Forum of imperial Rome into an early mediaeval sheep pasture.” 6
One of the dimensions of the predicaments binding us to The Long Descent is the fact that many of the effective collective responses we could make to reduce the impact of the decline remain politically unthinkable. One reason for this is our tendency to prioritise the present over the future, which virtually ensures, given a choice, we will choose short-term benefits over long-term gains - As JMG asks - “how many people would vote for a politician or a party who proposed to bring on these changes deliberately, now, in order to prevent disaster later on?”.7 This isn’t a temporary glitch in our otherwise functional democracy, it is an inherent feature in the life cycle of civilisations.
Before I go on, I think it is important to remember that while JMG does not believe it is possible to prevent The Long Descent, he is not suggesting that we are without options or that there is nothing that can be done to prepare for it. In fact, it is because of the exceedingly low probability of effective, top-down leadership that he emphasises that “the one remaining option is preparation on the personal, family, and community level.” 8 This will involve wholesale changes to our political economy - the livelihoods we adopt, how we live together as families and how we come together as a community. The critical point here is that the scale of response is not going to be led, top-down, by international institutions, multinational corporations or even national governments; the interests of these parties will remain focused on maintaining the current arrangements that have given them their existing power and privilege, the change will be an emergent, bottom-up response resulting from the countless adaptations and incremental changes we make as individuals and collectively as families and communities in response to the challenges of the day.
At the scale of the community, this will involve a reorientation towards maintaining “basic community services such as sanitation, dispute resolution, and public safety during times when centralized government isn’t functioning”. 9 For households and extended families, this will involve the reinvention of the household economy, meaning that an increasing fraction of our day-to-day needs will be met through the informal and unpaid production, exchange and care - “Not so long ago, a large fraction of all economic value came from the household sector. Many of us still remember grandmothers who always had jars of homemade jelly in the cupboard and crochet hooks dancing in their hands, and grandfathers whose garages were as full of tools as their gardens were of ripe tomatoes.” For individuals, JMG recommends starting small and taking it from there, from the practical ‘low hanging fruit’ actions such as retrofitting your home for energy conservation, cutting back on fossil fuel consumption, starting a vegetable garden and composting your food scraps through to learning practical hand-based skills, adopting an“obsolete” technology, (such as the scythe, that when used correctly is as effective as a ‘weed wacker’ but much more resilient to dwindling energy resources), through to taking charge of your own healthcare, helping to build your local community and exploring your spirituality.
JMG’s The Long Descent provides an excellent introduction to some of the core system dynamics underpinning many of today’s predicaments and provides grounded and practical advice on what we can do as individuals, families and in community.
Postscript - But wait, there's more! Through The Long Descent, JMG sows the seeds for two key concepts he picks up in detail in subsequent books that I will review in due course. The first is the application of ecological succession as an apt and useful analogy for a civilisation's life cycle, which is expanded on in Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World. The second is the civic religion of progress as the established and largely unrecognised religion and shared belief system of the industrial age, the central theme explored in After Progress: Reason and Religion at the End of the Industrial Age.
1. Whilst I find JMC theory of catabolic collapse and the long descent the most compelling narrative of the future we are likely to face, the key differences today from previous civilizations include the potential of catastrophic climate change, ecological collapse and nuclear holocaust.
2. How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse By John Michael Greer, 2005. Abstract - The collapse of complex human societies remains poorly understood and current theories fail to model important features of historical examples of collapse. Relationships among resources, capital, waste, and production form the basis for an ecological model of collapse in which production fails to meet maintenance requirements for existing capital. Societies facing such crises after having depleted essential resources risk catabolic collapse, a self-reinforcing cycle of contraction converting most capital to waste. This model allows key features of historical examples of collapse to be accounted for, and suggests parallels between successional processes in nonhuman ecosystems and collapse phenomena in human societies.
3. John Micheal Greer. The Long Descent: A user's guide to the end of the industrial age, 2008.
5. The process started 40+ years ago when our global population first went into overshoot - https://data.footprintnetwork.org/#/exploreData
6. While this is JMG in his own words, this extended quote is sourced from a range of his writings, some of which I have lost track of. The primary source is The Long Descent: A user's guide to the end of the industrial age, 2008.
7. John Micheal Greer. The Long Descent: A user's guide to the end of the industrial age, 2008.