Let us start with persona, since one goes to any prizefight to see the metaphorical battle of two created characters, embodying sides, virtues, faults.
In this Corna… John Michael Greer, owner (by a whisker over Bob Waldrop) of the finest beard in Peak Oildom, Archdruid, moral descendent of Toynbee and Gibbon, considerer of declines in centuries, not weekends. No Zombies for Greer – we are Rome, and we might as well deal with it, dammit.
And in this Corna…Rob Hopkins, beardless founder of the Transition movement, permaculturist, endless energetic optimist and municipal leader, student of the first half of the British century, bent of reorganizing his community and the world to adapt to energy descent. If we could live without that energy once before, well, we can do it now, and let’s get at it.
For the record, I like them – and their work – both a lot. I met John Greer for the first time this summer, and immediately felt like I’d met my long-lost older brother – you know, the kind of person you like but can’t resist bickering with. We have the same publisher, we agree 85% of the time – and we fight like cats and dogs when we don’t. Once we were asked to blurb each other’s books, at the same time we were having an online debate, and we ended up proposing mock-insult blurbs for each other. This, I think, is probably a good representative of our relationship.
Hopkins I’ve never met and am not likely to – both of us adhere to the “stay off the planes” policy for the most part, so the odds are low. But Hopkins and I have emailed back and forth and interacted from time to time. I’ve written things critical of the Transition movement, and have always been impressed by the good humored and thoughtful way he takes criticism, and by the enormous amount of work he does. It is impossible to overstate how impressive Hopkins’ accomplishments in essentially creating the Transition movement are.
In some ways, I think of the three of us and some other people as the “second wave” of emergent peak oil writers – our accomplishments and worldviews are different, but as peak oil thinkers we have some essential commonalities. By this I mean that the first wave, which began in 1997 with Colin Campbell’s publication of his first paper on peak oil, and included a large number of petroleum geologists (Ken Deffeyes), some political scientists (Michael Klare) and a mix of early-aware writers (Richard Heinberg), folks working out of their fields but doing important research (Julian Darley and Matt Simmons) and journalists (Jim Kunstler). That first wave of books was mostly about raising the alarm and awareness – and it was extremely effective and important. Most of us can date some measure of our awareness to books like _Twilight in the Desert_, _The Party’s Over_, _Beyond Oil_ and _The Long Emergency_.
These books were mostly about raising the alarm, doing the difficult work of telling a public never educated about petroleum production or resource depletion how we know this might happen, why they should be worried, and what a post-peak future might look like. And they were enormously successful and important books, most of them published before 2005, and most of them still being read now by people who are still experiencing a sudden “oh crap” recognition of the data they are seeing.
The second generation of us came along around that time, I think, for the most part, give or take a year. We’d read the books. We had spent our time reading the latest figures and the data. We knew what the books said was true – and built from there. And we emerged precisely because all the first generation peak oil thinkers had already laid the groundwork for us. There was now a population, however small, of people who have grasped that the world can’t go on this way – and that population was ready for a more complicated narrative of what that would mean for them. All of us began, I think from asking that question “what will this world look like?” And then “what do we do next?”
My first speaking gig was pretty much at the cusp of this moment of emergence into a new focus – in September 2006, I spoke at the Community Solutions conference on peak oil, the third one they’d ever held. The speakers included Heinberg and Darley, and both of them gave speeches they clearly had given often before – speeches explaining the issues, describing the resource problems, with lots of slides and data. And for the first time at these conferences, the audience wasn’t that engaged – don’t get me wrong, the presentations were good, but for the very first time, the audience had heard it before and had enough time to absorb the information. I think that’s one of the reasons I was reasonably successful there – because I started from the implicit presumption that we all pretty much knew this stuff. A year earlier, I don’t think I could have done that. Without building on those who came before me, I couldn’t have done it.
The second wave of peak oil writers is a pretty weird group, frankly. There’s Hopkins, a permaculturist professional optimist mantra is pretty much “if pre-petroleum Britain could do it, we can” and who spends a lot of time on pre-war Britain. There’s Greer, the Druid and lover of long dead historians who sees in us falling empire a la Rome. There’s me, the leftist feminist farmer/social history type who sees this in terms of a mix of home economics, social history and WWII agitprop. There’s Dmitry Orlov, the funniest of us, the Russian boatman who sees in the US the Soviet Collapse. There’s Nate Hagens, who sees this through an evolutionary psychology lens, with a focus on finance. There’s Ran Prieur who is hard to categorize, but sees it all as kind of a zen thing, inevitable in human development. There’s Amanda Kovattana who comes at this from a leftist, internationalist “stick it to Global Industrial society” perspective, and Nicole Foss who comes at this through money and energy like Hagens, but with a focus on finance and economic history. There are others too, I’m not trying to do a full cover the landscape here, just give you a sense of how weird this is (there’s also a third wave, which I’ll write about another time).
What’s interesting about the second wave is that quite honestly, given our short summary identities, you’d think no one would read us. I mean that quite seriously – who the heck wants to view the fall of the world through a feminist literary domestic historian turned farmer turned science writer? If you were writing an ad “read the Toynbee loving archdruid about catabolic collapse” would probably not sell. I don’t think you could pitch a book to an American publisher cold by saying “this is how the US is pretty much just like the Soviet Union, except not as healthy during the inevitable collapse.” I know that when I started blogging I pretty much thought that maybe my Mom would read it – once. And yet, that’s not what happened – for any of us.
Now you could use this as proof of the insanity of the peak oil movement, but I don’t think so – or rather I don’t think that’s all there is to it. I think it was, instead, proof of something else – the desperate desire of many people to go from “here’s what is happening” to “now what?” And there are a lot of answers to that “now what” question – a lot of different ways to look at the world, a lot of different ways to predict what will happen, a lot of different ways to organize, a lot of different ways to respond, a lot of different experiences to work from. And a surprising number of people have found that somewhere in the interstices between all of these rather strange worldviews, a common set of useful assumptions has started to emerge – not that any of us has a whole picture, but that between us, readers can begin to garner a worldview.
At the same time, each of us writers is locked up somewhat in our head and our experiences, with our sense – often strong sense – of what may happen and how it will happen. As writers, we are largely rewarded for unified worldview – that is, one of the things that gets people reading us is that we have a particular and unique vision that we can make into a coherent (or in my case, semi-coherent) narrative. This is extremely useful to a lot of people – because it helps them envision things. Through our writings and our eyes they come to look at the events unfolding differently. And my sense is that a lot of readers develop a complex, nuanced vision of how this works, precisely by looking through all of us second wave writers’ eyes. Sure, we all have our primary adherents – people who read just us – but a lot of folks read us all, at least some of the time.
I think that’s why I think the emerging consensus of almost all the comments on Greer and Hopkins’ respective blogs about their battle over Transition vs. Green Wizardry is that both are probably more valuable than either one. Indeed, Hopkins and Greer have pretty much agreed that they agree on the most important things while still thinking that their disagreements matter. And that’s probably good – but I hope that the pressure to emphasize agreements won’t stop them from fighting. Maybe that’s a weird thought, but it is true (I have faith that it isn’t really a danger ;-)).
I too disagree with Greer and Hopkins – fairly regularly, actually. Some of the disagreements are trivial – I think a lot of Transition activities I’ve encountered function as the kind of spirit-building activities that I absented myself from as frequently as possible in high school. I love appropriate technology, but I admit, like Hopkins I don’t think the best stuff ever came out in the 70 – some of it sure, (I still don’t know why Hopkins goes hatin’ on Ruth Stout ;-)), but I don’t see the case for 70s publications over say, the work of Scott Kellogg and RUST in the present. This is totally trivial stuff, though.
Then there are the serious ones – I think Greer gets climate change really, really wrong, and have written before about why I think that is. I think his long view erases deep suffering in the short term, and focuses only on the rich world. I think Hopkins’ refusal to deal seriously with a harder, faster crash possibility sometimes undercuts the potential utility of Transition – the deep problem I see with Transition is that it only works if there’s plenty of time to make it work. I also think that the municipal level may be too large for many communities – that the most urgent work has to be done at the neighborhood level.
I think the criticisms we make of each other matter – and we deal with each other most fiercely probably when there’s truth in those critiques. There is, frankly, truth in Hopkins’ observation that the 70s appropriate technology may not be the best place to start. There is truth in Greer’s point that just because you organize doesn’t mean that your organization strategies actually will function in a decline. There is truth in the critiques they’ve levelled at me over the years.
Whenever these debates go on, a lot of people try to smooth them over by observing we all have more in common than not. And that’s absolutely true, but maybe the difference matter more than they credit for. At the recent gathering where I met Greer in person for the first time, Dmitry Orlov, Nate Hagens, Greer and I were all together with Heinberg and a group of other people, trying to describe the future. And what we found was that those different lenses did lead to a 90% overlap in worldview. Most of what we were telling people was the same. Most of the strategies we were advising were mostly the same. In the end, the realities of peak oil, climate change and the consequences of our wild financial overextension led to a largely similar set of parameters.
That’s why Greer’s Green Wizards and Hopkins’ Transitioners and my readers are all focused on shifting the food system. That’s why Nate Hagens’ sense that this is mostly our neurology pushing us down the wrong path and Prieur’s sense that we are drawn to overextension by our inner natures are so close. This is why Nicole Foss, Dmitry Orlov and Amanda Kovattna are all so concerned with how people will hold on to housing. When you turn your head to the realities we are facing – a lot fewer resources, more people, a less stable climate, a less stable economy, environmental degradation, the stories aren’t that different. All of us reject the idea of cartoon apocalypse. All of us reject the idea of techno-optimism. All of us live in the grey middle space of the future.
And at some level, all of us are consumed with the need to imagine that space and that future. I think all of us would probably agree that a future we can’t imagine is the scariest possible place. Even the dark places of a society in decline are less disturbing than knowing that the stories you’ve been told about progress and techno-optimism are false, but not knowing what lies ahead, living in a world where all the maps of beyond just say “here be dragons.”
I do not, however, want to emerge from this with a lyrical praise of our common ground, a sense that the differences don’t matter. In fact, I suspect they do – I think there is real value in the battles, in what one commenter calls “dueling blogs” – and it isn’t necessarily in the emergence, as we have here, of the clear common ground. Sure, that’s useful, but you can get that from any one of us. What’s most valuable instead is that between the second wave peak oil writers, the emerging third wave, countless others I haven’t mentioned for lack of space and the continued and deeply important work of the first wave, between all those thinkers and their ideas, their investment in theory and worldview, and their organizations and the work they set out to do, there’s a better picture emerging than any of us could have made on our own.
Greer thus chastizes me for having too short a view of history. I accuse him of erasing the suffering of the short view. Hopkins argues for community organizing strategies. Orlov points out that his direct experience is that those communities are self-organizing. And all of us are picking up on real faults in the thinking of others – not all the truth, but real faults sometimes, and new ways of thinking sometimes. The interstitial spaces have probably the greatest degree of truth in them – that the long and the short view will both be lived, that communities will both self-organize in unpredictable ways and be served by previous organization. The fighting is at least as important as the agreeing.