Back when I was starting to realize that our relatively recent collective ascent to the holy realms of comfort and luxury was, not just recent, but also potentially very short-lived, something struck me. I had been taking in the trickle of media coverage on global warming, and via Greenpeace had started to appreciate the wider ecological impacts of our culture, and to take activist baby steps. But walking around a typically vast and laden supermarket one day, noticing the handful of “eco-friendly” products that had started to populate the shelves, I suddenly thought: “None of this will help.” That is, changing the kind of stuff we consume just won’t work; we have to consume less stuff. Not a typical teenage sentiment, for sure. But even though this view is probably even less popular now than it was 25 years ago, anyone paying attention can probably see that it was quite a shrewd observation.
This call to consume less, smothered with ridicule and accusations of masochism, is probably as close to heresy as you’ll get in our oh-so-liberal capitalist world, so it’s perhaps surprisingly apt that this book—an impassioned but lucidly reasonable expression of this call—has been published by Scarlet Imprint, who fly the flag for serious endeavours in the dark arts. I say “surprisingly” apt because most people would associate worshippers of Our Lady Babalon with indulgence and excess. But, as the author—neo-druid and peak oil blogger John Michael Greer—manages to convey, the excess pursued by magicians only incidentally overlaps with that we are induced to pursue by contemporary advertising. Indeed, for the magician, many of the lives led by people now who, on paper, exceed the luxury of medieval royalty, are appallingly impoverished—not just “spiritually”, but sensually, too. The subtle and potent streams of energetic consciousness that our bodies are capable of are dulled and deadened by unthinking cultural slavery, and a lazily persistent stream of pseudo-ecstasies. As Hakim Bey said, the dullard finds even wine tasteless, but the sorcerer can be intoxicated by the mere sight of water.
However, the idea of consuming less as heresy is far from the end of the links here between our ecological situation—primarily the fact that we may now be experiencing the peak of the production of cheap oil—and occult traditions. Greer convincingly affirms the old adage that the advertising industry is a mass black magic operation. And since this nefarious institution is a crucial part of the system that both requires vast inputs of fossil fuels and blinds us to the imminent dwindling of these archaic, irreplaceable reserves of solar power, the book’s subtitle (“An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil”) quickly shifts from being a curious juxtaposition to a logical pairing. Further, since Greer is not persuaded by the techno-fix mentality that seeks to innovate its way to infinite growth (surely a religious belief if ever there was one), magic is revealed as being part of the solution as well as part of the problem. Applied consciously, opposing the deceptive manipulations of Madison Avenue mages, it is an essential body of advanced psychology that could be essential to adjusting our attitudes, changing our behaviour, and mitigating the worst scenarios implied by the collapse of our society’s singularly capable fuel.
Greer has an impressive range of knowledge in both of the fields that he is drawing together here, and his style has the accessible fluidity of someone who has been sharing his learning as much as he’s been taking it in. This is not a how-to magic manual—though there are some excellent tips for approaching magic with a grounded sense of reality. And this book is not going to fill you in on the details of peak oil (I would recommend looking into Richard Heinerg’s work). What it does do is make a solid case out of the perception that our culture’s ignorance and demonization of magic is of a piece with our will-lessly ignorant attitude to the environment, and our being in thrall to the supposedly rational doctrine of progress that justifies so much of our destructiveness.
Two main criticisms of this bookstand out for me. Scarlet Imprint produce very beautiful, “talismanic” books, finely bound and handsomely designed. For myself, while Greer’s prose is everything this kind of polemical work should be, it is clearly rooted in the rhetoric of the blogosphere, and there seemed to be an incongruity between this and the precious package. Luckily, the publishers have branched out with their Bibliotheque Rouge imprint, providing a cheaper paperback and digital edition that seems a little more suited to this particular work.
Secondly, Greer argues that part of the reason we should start breaking our dependence on the machines and products of petroleum society immediately is that it will be easier now than when these things start vanishing from our lives due to plummeting energy supplies. I’ve always held this view myself, and while I’ve yet to drop it, a rather pessimistic realization hit me reading Greer’s expression of my own sentiment. George Orwell wrote, in ‘Shopkeepers at War’, of the importance of “equality of sacrifice” in the war effort. “Almost certainly the main reason why the Spanish Republic could keep up the fight for two and a half years against impossible odds was that there were no gross contrasts of wealth. The people suffered horribly, but they all suffered alike.” He saw that British patriotism was fuelling morale during the Second World War, but he didn’t think the patriotism was bottomless.
At some point or another you have got to deal with the man who says “I should be no worse off under Hitler.” But what answer can you give him—that is, what answer that you can expect him to listen to—while common soldiers risk their lives for two and sixpence a day, and fat women ride about in Rolls-Royce cars, nursing pekineses?
Given the obscene disparity in wealth today, are we not in an even worse position? If hard sacrifices are psychologically eased by sharing them with others, how many people will be bothered to give up their material comforts while surrounded by millions wallowing in the last drops of oil? Realizing that the kind of draconian, collectivist measures feared and lampooned by right-wing pundits may be the only real way out of our common dilemma, and realizing the impossibility of this given the popularity of the mind of Jeremy Clarkson, makes for a depressing train of thought.
But this bleak perspective can, of course, hardly be a real criticism of Greer’s work and his eminently savvy advice. It merely underlines the fact that the bulk of the people who will follow the paths he gestures towards will be people who would be looking in that direction even if we discovered a magical pipeline that manifested the mad dreams of economists who think oil will never run out. These are the people—perhaps much more numerous than we imagine—who are utterly fed up of modern life, becoming more conscious of its impoverishment by the day. It’s hard to imagine anyone who genuinely loves the oil-fuelled life voluntarily giving it up now rather than waiting until they’re forced to do so along with everyone else. Ironically, while an informed vision of the future is vital, an integral expression of human potential, it may be living for now that ultimately decides this future. Do you want your now to be crammed with the shiny distractions and processed emotions of our spectacular late-capitalist machine? Or do you want your now to be spacious, with plenty of room for yourself and those you love?