The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age
By John Michael Greer
New Society Publishers, 2008, paper, 260 pages, $18.95
Civilizations rise and fall – the Roman Empire, the Mayans, the British colonial empire – and now it’s our turn. Consider the author’s blunt term, “a post-industrial society.” Yes, he means life after our vaunted high-tech industries grind to a halt for a lack of oil.
Petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert developed a formula for projecting when an oil field or a country would reach its maximum production, a point now referred to as Hubbert’s peak. In 1956 Mr. Hubbert predicted that the U.S. would hit its oil peak around 1970. He nailed the date exactly and despite continuing exploration, offshore drilling, oil tar sands, etcetera, it has been downhill ever since.
In 1970 Hubbert then applied his formula to global output and his forecast pointed to the year 2000. Recent, more accurate analyses peg the apex between 2005 and 2010. Greer estimates world oil production maxed in 2005 and we are already descending the back side of Hubbert’s peak.
It turns out there is a science of fin de siecle for civilizations and Greer displays the formulas and equations used by specialists in the field (fiends de siecle?). But they are unnecessary for the lay reader. The bottom line is that the world is inexorably running out of oil, upon which our society is so utterly dependent, and we are already way behind in preparing for the aftermath.
In fact, those who shout “Drill, baby, drill!” actually sabotage the public interest, making the inevitable transition more difficult, more abrupt and economically traumatic. The author states that to achieve a relatively painless transition to a post-oil economy we should have begun serious long-range planning decades ago, perhaps around the time President Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the White House.
The Long Descent presents our dilemma in such clear, concise terms, and Greer’s research is so comprehensive, that the reader is left with no doubt as to the impending crisis. Like a mouse in a glass jar one’s mind scratches in vain to find the flaw in his presentation. The metaphor he uses to explain our denial, our refusal to accept the impending collapse of our high-tech lifestyle, is the Asian monkey trap. The monkey can save himself by releasing the food he has gripped in the gourd trap – but he doesn’t, and is doomed. Likewise, we cannot let go of our dependence upon oil. If we could, we’d have a chance to save our economy, at least some of our comfortable lifestyle — but we don’t.
The eye-opening analogy Greer provides for the decline of the oil-depletion curve states that life on the downside will approximate life an equal number of years before the peak. Example: around 1905, one hundred years before 2005, transportation was primarily by horse-drawn buggies and coal-fired locomotives. Thus it will be in 2105.
In Chapter 5, “Tool for the Transition,” Greer offers suggestions on how to prepare for the long descent and life in an oil-less society. (Think of craft skills like blacksmithing and beer brewing.) This penetrating, disturbing wake-up call should be required reading for every high school and college student today. Forewarned is forearmed.