The Collapse of Our Civilization: John-Michael Greer and Pablo Servigne
The American individualistic and the European community-based approach
When I scheduled an interview with John-Michael Greer (JMG), I wanted to hear him talk about the collapse of our civilization.
I must also confess that his role – as a Druid and former Grand Arch-Druid of the Ancient Order of Druids in the United States – added a certain aura to the man.
Beyond John’s spiritual accomplishments, I was curious to meet the author of eight books and countless articles on topics ranging from societal collapse to the Occult, spirituality, and the intersection between magic and politics.
Even the whole idea of “societal collapse” that I’ve been using (as distinct from many other kinds of collapses) owes a debt to John. In 2016, he wrote Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead which earned him the title of “a modern-day prophet speaking on behalf of Reality.”
For Greer who has lived through all kinds of collapses (with an s), capital-c Collapse means that our fossil fuel-reliant society cannot sustain itself and, even if we do survive the threat of a nuclear winter, we will render the earth uninhabitable. Now, at the precipice before our final collapse, I wanted to ask John: what can we do?
Our initial conversation on Back in America took place in the early days of the pandemic. When I reached back to John Michael a few days ago to ask how he was doing he said:
“This is what the decline of civilization looks like. Get used to it; that decline will continue until long after all of us are dead.”
The European Approach
In Europe, the study of this environmental collapse has taken the form of myriad academic institutes and disciplines such as collapsology. Collapsology, as the term implies, is the academic study of total collapse from the interdisciplinary perspectives of anthropology, politics, sociology, biology, and environmental science (just to name a few). While the idea is relatively unknown within the United States, writers such as Pablo Servigne, an agricultural engineer and Ph.D. in biology, have helped popularize the realization that our industrial civilization is going to collapse one day. Just because neoliberal capitalism purports to provide a livable quality of life for people today, doesn’t mean that the world is destined to be organized in this way. Looming underneath our collective psyche lurks the combination of existential threats: environmental, energetic, economic, and geopolitical.
In the face of total extinction – something unthinkable before the European Enlightenment – Pablo calls for resilience. Communities (deriving from the same etymological root as immunity) need to come together in tight hubs of trusted, caring individuals in order to be ready for an unknowable and potentially devastating future. Servigne’s message is, paradoxically, a message of hope: to lose the possibility of civilization is traumatic and, only by mentally and physically preparing for it, can we build the next civilization.
In a recent article on Resilience.org, Pablo asks, “how can we live with recurrent bad news of these mega threats? Everybody finds themselves running on a perpetual treadmill of emotions including anger, fear, sadness, grief, and guilt.”
Pablo is asking us all whether this “bad news necessarily lead[s] to inaction if fear does always paralyze? Or, on the contrary, are despair or rage part of the process of action?”
For him, “people involved in such conversations and initiatives have been holding space for discussions infused with attention to anti-patriarchy, social justice, decolonization, and inequality. Debates around collapse issues should not be western-centric as they concern all living communities (and species) on earth. Indigenous communities have been experiencing collapses for years, and the western white middle classes should learn from them.”
“Ethically,” he adds, “it is not acceptable not to think about these catastrophic outcomes. It is a matter of the precautionary principle, as XR activist and associate professor in philosophy at the University of East Anglia Rupert Read says, “collapse would probably be so dreadful that not preparing for it to make it less so is now gross irresponsibility.”
In a review of Pablo’s book, How Everything Can Collapse, Sophie Pinkham writes, “Collapse, requires hard work because it is as much a beginning as an end. In the view of these self-styled ‘collapsologists,’ the disintegration of national and global institutions will demand invention, resourcefulness, and a return to small, mostly self-sufficient communities that depend on local networks of mutual aid. The newly minted discipline of collapsology aims to help people prepare for this new way of being.”
The American Approach
When I spoke to John-Michael Greer, his point of view was somewhat more pragmatic:
“Basically, on the one hand, you have the survivalists who are convinced that the idea of preparing involves lots of firearms and holding up in the woods and blazing away at advancing enemies. And, on the other hand, a lot of the people on the resilient end of things have this idea to building communities, typically from scratch or take individual towns and get everyone to follow their lead.
That's not happening anymore.
It was such a big thing a decade ago. It's dead! It's been dead in the water here for several years because nobody else cares. And so their plan of trying to get entire communities to restructure themselves along a resilient fashion is gone.”
“My approach,” John adds, “is kind of in the middle. And it's much more individually based. The thing that will help most as we're seeing right now, is that if individuals are personally resilient, personally prepared, they've stashed some stuff, they've developed some skills. They know what we're facing, they can provide an anchor of stability and sanity in a difficult time.
I argue we are not facing a sudden collapse, we are facing a long dissent, we are facing a long, ragged decline that will unfold over several centuries. That individually based approach strikes me as far and away from the most useful.
The way that communities will become resilient is not because a handful of intellectual activists decide to make them resilient. It's going to happen because individual people and families, neighborhoods simply notice that this works and that doesn't.”
For John-Michael Greer, “The old American frontier values are what speak to Americans. They date back to the frontier period, where you have things like the old ‘Use it Up, Wear it Out, Make it Do, or Do Without!’ you have the attitudes that were much more common before we became the wealthiest of the wealthy society we are now.”
Attitudes that focus on hard work and individualism not as a way to amass vast amounts of wealth, but the best ways to get by with minimal interference, either to or from other people.”
To hear more about John-Michael Greer’s approach towards the coming apocalypse, check out Back in America’s episode from 2020, available on Stitcher, Podbean, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts.