Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil by John Michael Greer

Scarlet Imprint.  2011.  178 pages.  Octavo.  No illustrations.

Available in four editions:

Digital epub/mobi
Bibliotheque Rouge edition (paperback)
Finite edition (cloth): limited to 747 copies.
Black Gold fine bound edition, full Nigerian goat: limited to 55 copies.

“According to Daloway, oil had intelligence, it had purpose ... and it also had its agents.  These beings, Daloway speculated, might be parts of itself, able to move independently man-shaped and mansized for purposes of camouflage, composed of a sort of infernal black ectoplasm or something more material than that—a darkly oleaginous humanoid spawn. Or they might be, at least to begin with, living men who had become oil's worshipers and slaves, who had taken the Black Baptism or the Sable Consecration—as he put it with a strange facetiousness.”  
-- Fritz Leiber "The Black Gondolier"

The Blood of the Earth by John Michael Greer is the second magicio-political release from Scarlet Imprint, the first being their remarkably prescient title XVI.  Unfortunately for us, I fear The Blood of the Earth will be equally prophetic.  In essence the book's central theme is the Peak Oil phenomenon, a reference to an era that began around 2005 when world oil extraction peaked before the current and inevitable decline.  Greer, a leading Peak Oil researcher, estimates (along with many scientists) that we only have a few decades remaining before the price of a barrel of crude is no longer economically viable, and that's being charitable.  He points out how vulnerable the developed world is by its total dependence on cheap non-renewable energy.  Without it, Industrialized society as we know it simply cannot exist.  Most readers will instantly point towards other sources of energy: wind, solar, geothermal, biodiesel, etc., but none of these even come close to providing the same energy output as petroleum.  Furthermore, the energy needed to build the infrastructure for the aforementioned 'solutions' would require large amounts of cheap energy; without it, it's a net energy loss.

Greer argues there was a time in the 60s and 70s when we still had enough oil reserves to make the shift to alternative sources.  If we'd invested our oil wealth into the production of alternative energy technologies and rationed it carefully we could have made the transition.  But we didn't.  Instead, we've spent the last 30+ years wasting energy like drunken sailors, all the while telling ourselves, We'll think of something when the time comes.  The time is nigh and we still haven't come up with our energy miracle.  Nuclear power is too dangerous, as Fukushimia Daiichi disaster has proven; cold fusion was a pipe dream; ethanol fell flat.  But the solution/breakthrough/miracle is just around the corner, right?  Do you know what this kind of thinking reminds me of?  It reminds me of the people who believe in The Rapture.  They believe that any day now Jesus is going to show up and whisk the righteous up and away to the gates of Heaven, who are conveniently The Rapture believers.  While they bail on us (doesn't sound very Christian, does it?), the rest of humanity is doomed down on earth.  Greer feels the likelihood of finding a miracle solution is very very low.  I would say it's about the same odds as Jesus showing up with a limited amount of free passes to Heaven.  It's not going to happen.  Sorry.

So what does this mean?  It means that the latter half of the 21st century is going to resemble the 19th century far more than it will the 20th; it means we'll have to get by with a lot less; it means abundance and convenience will be a thing of the past.  Now, a book like this could easily turn into nothing more than a treatise of handwringing or a series of angry accusations at various control structures.  Greer deftly sidesteps all that by basically saying, We lost -- get over it -- and here's how you can make the best of a dire situation.  Furthermore, instead of filling pages with paranoid notions of stockpiling food stuffs and weapons, or praying for an as-yet uninvented technology that will sweep in and save the day -- no pie-in-the-sky solutions here -- he provides three modest and practical recommendations as a place to start that will likely be helpful in the future:
  • Learn one thing (how to grow vegetables, how to make soap, how to raise chickens, ham radio, etc.), 
  • Give up one thing (one's car, tv, A/C, long showers, etc.), 
  • Save one thing (knowledge via books, preserve skills and crafts, memorize things). 
Greer feels that once energy becomes too expensive to be practical all these ebooks, programs, .pdfs, and other ephemeral ware will be as inaccessible as forgotten languages -- incomprehensible Atlantean relics.  He believes that if we can slowly acclimate ourselves to our likely future (sooner rather than later) it won't be quite so jarring.  It's a very sensible approach -- no ammo hoarding involved.  Those who have already adjusted will be the ones most likely to thrive and have marketable skills to teach, barter, or trade.  Who knew I was already on track with my book collection?

This leads to the other major theme within The Blood of the Earth, what Greer calls 'The Myth of Progress'.  Ever since the Industrial Revolution people have been taught to believe that technological advancement is inevitable, that things will continually get 'better' (usually defined by monetary wealth), more abundant, and by and large things generally did, that is, until recently, or unless you're part of the world's majority who has never experienced the riches of Western nations.  This is all predicated on the erroneous belief that a finite energy source (oil) will somehow enable infinite progress.  Greer argues we've been sold a lie.  The last 150 years is nothing but an anomaly in the history of man -- a brief flare-up creating the illusion of infinite growth and infinite potential, only too inevitably settle back into old patterns and modest, sustainable societies.  Greer eloquently states,

"In order to make sense of the future bearing down on us, it's necessary to recognize that the priviliged lifestyles of the recent past were the product of the chain of historical accidents that handed over half a billion years of stored sunlight to be burnt at extravagant rates by a handful of of the world's nations.  Now that the supply is running short, those lifestyles are going away, and since the decline in petroleum production is gradual rather than sudden, some people are losing access to them sooner than others.  The automatic reaction of the part of most people facing this challenge is to cling to their familiar perks and privileges like grim death; the problem with that reaction, of course is that the deathgrip in question very quickly becomes mutual."

 It won't be pretty, but we really don't have much choice in the matter.  We gave up that option 30 years ago when we started eating our own seed corn, so to speak.

So about now you're probably wondering what all this has to do with magic, right?  Besides being a leading voice in Peak Oil, John Michael Greer is also the Grand Arch Druid of the AODA (Ancient Order of Druids in America).  Greer believes that though magic we can transform our social consciousness as a society to better prepare ourselves for the perils that lie ahead.  He suggests we move beyond binary thinking and start using tertiary logic which Greer says, "defuses the binary reaction so that whatever issue is up for discussion can be put back into its actual context, and is no longer seen exclusively through the filter of food/nonfood, predator/nonpredator, and the like."  This is not a political Left/Right issue; it's no use pointing fingers and placing blame.  The damage has been done.  Reenacting tired old political battles is like rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic.  New methods and new modes of thinking need to be developed.  This incluses the use of magic to affect change. Greer states, "magical combat is a struggle of narratives or, if you will, of ways of structuring experience."  So by restructuring the context by which we live our lives we can more readily adapt to future changes.  This is within our power.  This isn't just positive thinking, nor does it involve breaking the laws of physics with our minds -- we can't just magically produce more oil from nothing.  To paraphrase Grant Morrison, no matter how much you will yourself to be King of the Moon, it's not going to happen.  Everything has limits.  Instead, we need to willfully shift our lives over to a new mode of existence -- a new narrative, as Greer says --  where oil is relegated from lead protagonist to an insignificant background character.  It won't be easy, but nobody said it would be.

Now the physical book...

The copy I will be reviewing is one of the 55 copies of the 'Black Gold' edition, as in Texas Tea.  It is bound in full, black, Nigerian goat.  It comes in a sturdy slipcase wrapped in black linen. Its simplicity and design is extremely minimalist and austere, a fitting choice for a book dealing with the various crises we'll face in the near future.  No Baroque ornamentation, no Medieval woodcuts -- just sleek black leather with simple deco-style geometric shapes gilt-blocked into the cover representing a weeping sun.  It's a high-impact look that is charged with symbolic meaning.  The title and publisher are stamped in gold along the spine.  The leather is soft and begs to be touched (in fact I'm holding it right now).  I'm continually amazed by the variety of scents various leathers have to offer.  This goatskin has a faint marine scent; kind of nice actually, like salty spindrift on a gloomy day.

  Upon opening the book the reader is dazzled by specially commissioned endpapers marbled in -- you guessed it -- black and gold cleverly designed to mimic the look of an oil slick -- gilded cobwebs floating on tar.  Sadly I suspect this is what the waters of the Gulf of Mexico may have looked like after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  The book sports black head and tail bands, gilded edges, and a crimson silk bookmark.  The paper is cream-colored, heavy, and stiff.  This seems to be the standard of their fine editions.  The text block has very large margins (1.5 " sides and 2" bottom).  This gives the text plenty of room and a very classic look.  That said, with all that room available I wish they had chosen a font that was just a little larger.  The font struck me as a hair too small.  This size may be fine for younger readers, but it's a bit of an eyestrain for those of us with a bit of gray.  Other than the tiny font size the text is sharp and clear.  Greer concludes with a welcome Bibliography and Index.

Some may think that a lavish edition like this flies in the face of ecological responsibility or caters to consumerism.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  These books are bound by hand and designed to last, likely far longer than you or I.  Scarlet Imprint calls it, "a book designed to endure through the long decline of industrial civilisation." adding, "... our hardbacks are the antithesis of mass-production consumerism."  Indeed.  The more durable the container, the more likely its survival.

This may all sound very bleak, like some dystopian Sci-Fi nightmare; however, the author stays remarkably positive.  You see, this is because he puts his faith in humanity, not the artifacts with which we surround ourselves.  We're continually sold artificial meaning, a purpose by proxy through mindless consumerism.  Our plastic Messiahs hold no salvation.  Unlike Al Gore and other false paragons, Greer leads by example.  For Greer the transition will be easy.  For starters, he has never owned a car, does not own a TV, and grows much of his own food.  It's no wonder he's not fearful of the future.  From where he sits, the coming crisis may be nothing more than a small bump in the road, but for the rest of us, unless we learn to live with less (and soon), we're setting ourselves up for a rude awakening.  The Blood of the Earth should serve as a real wake-up call for those unfamiliar with the reality of Peak Oil.  Consider this book your alarm clock: are you going to face today's challenges or just hit 'snooze'?

Finally, I want to state my appreciation to Scarlet Imprint for continually publishing material that is far outside the norms of standard occult publishing.  It's very refreshing.  Their forward-thinking books take risks, break with conventions, and most importantly, challenge readers to take personal action.  Their ever-growing library burns white-hot with Promethean fire.

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