Interview with JohnMichael Greer on science, technology, and his pessimistic view of the descent of civilization.
A healthy look at our myth of progress.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with author and blogger John Michael Greer. During the interview Greer challenges the notion that our history is one of progress through science and technology:
Alex Tsakiris: Here are some of the things that you have written:
‘Our biggest myth is that we don’t have myths.’
‘Our myth is progress. Our history is cycles, rise and fall of civilization.’
And let me do one more, because I really love this one:
‘Our only version of history most people in the industrial world is willing to consider is one that explains how people have stopped believing in all the obviously muddle-headed things we used to believe and learned to see that reality is sitting right out in front of them all along.’
John Michael Greer: One of the ways that I have taken to talking about this fantasy of ours, that we know the truth about the universe and everyone else in history was just plain stupid – is to think of it as a ritual drama, a ritual play. Like an Easter pageant or a passion play – every culture has its ritual dramas, where it can sort of enact the sacred truths of their society. Our ritual drama, if you have seen any TV special or children’s book about science and this kind of stuff – you have got certain stock characters. You have got the lone visionary who sees the universe the way it really is, you have got the conservative opposition who are going on in dull tones, oh you can’t do that. And you have this particular conflict between them that just sort of lumbers through, and history gets rewritten, seriously. It gets massively falsified to fit that paradigm.
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Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome John Michael Greer to Skeptiko. John is a prolific author, having written well over 20 books, including The Long Decent, a user’s guide to the end of the industrial age. Also, the Druidry Handbook, Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth. John is a practicing druid, something that I am anxious to talk to him about and learn more about that, as well as many other titles. And we might touch on some of them in the interview but there really are too many to go over. There are some fascinating, fascinating titles and there is some fiction and nonfiction in there. And we will just kind of see where all that goes. John, it is a great pleasure to have you on. Thanks so much for joining me.
John Michael Greer: Well, thank you very much for having me on. It is a pleasure to be on.
Alex Tsakiris: So your work was brought to my attention by several Skeptiko listeners and then most recently Eric reached out to you and asked you to come on. I am really glad he did. I wasn’t that familiar with your work and started reading it and I was like, wow, this is just brilliant stuff. I was highlighting left and right and I had a hard time getting through it because there was so much I just wanted to absorb. I am going to jump right into this rather than ask a lot of about your history and that kind of stuff because I want to turn people on to some of the stuff that you have written and use that as a launching off point. So one of these blog posts that really caught my attention was the clenched fist of reason written in July of 2014 and this is on your website. Is it the Well of Galabes?
John Michael Greer: The Well of Galabes.
Alex Tsakiris: The Well of Galabes. First of all, since you do delve into the druidry, magic, occult philosophy, that is what the website is about, and maybe you can tell us because I couldn’t find it anywhere. What is the Well of Galabes?
John Michael Greer: Oh, okay. In the old Arthurian stories, when Merlin wasn’t running around Camelot bailing knights out of various troubles and doing all the usual stuff that a working wizard does, at least in legendary times like that, he could be found at his favorite hangout, which was at a place somewhere in Britain at a well, or fount, or spring, called the Well of Galabes. So I have two blogs. I have the arch druid report, which mostly deals with politics and economics, the future of industrial society, minor issues like that. But I wanted to do another blog that would get back to my home territory, if you will, and actually talk about the underlying philosophy and spirituality that I was worrying about. So the idea that just as Merlin went back home to the Well of Galabes, to hang out when he wasn’t otherwise occupied, and I have this blog where I can hang out and post monthly discussions of things that of interest to me within the realm of spirituality and druid philosophy.
Alex Tsakiris: Great, and that intersection is something I hope we return to again and again in this dialogue, because I think you are to be commended for trying to look at those intersections and that juxtaposition of industrial society, culture, the thing that we are immersed of and can’t get out of, and spirituality in the larger sense of who we are. And I like very much that you take on that challenge. We try and do it on this show as well. It gets to the only kind of questions that really matter if you stay isolated in one or the other. You wind up just looking rather ridiculous really because we have to merge these two together. So let me then jump back to a discussion of where that intersection I think becomes most visible. And again this is a quote from this blog post, the clenched fist of reason. You write, ‘I have long since lost track of the number of times I have watched distinguished scientists admit with one breath that the things we experience around us aren’t real, and with the very next breath act as though matter, energy, space-time, and physical objects are real in the most pigheadedly literal sort of objective sense.’ Expound on that a little bit.
John Michael Greer: Okay, this is something that a lot of people who deal with esoteric philosophy, it is one of those things where you either tear your hair out or you shake your head. Because we all know, all of us who have a basic literacy in science, we all know that when you pick up a coffee cup, okay, what is actually there is not what we are seeing – the color of the cup, the coffee in there, all this kind of stuff. It is a pattern of energy stresses in space-time, literally unimaginable to us. We say atoms, but what are atoms? Again, atoms are energy patterns in space-time. That is all that is there. Our senses receive the various promptings from some of those patterns in space-time, our sense of course, our sense organs, more patterns in space-time, more of these energy stresses. And that sets in process this Rube-Goldberg chain of transmissions, interactions, and processing that creates in our minds the image of the coffee cup full of coffee. That image is a mental image, it is not a physical reality. The physical reality is the pattern of energy stresses, and that is all.
Now, we get this, we know this and yet an enormous number of people, including distinguished scientists although not limited to them, immediately go from the having granted that well, of course that is true, but the coffee cup is a physical coffee cup. It is made of solid matter, it is white, it is full of coffee. As if none of that matters. And then when you start paying attention to the implications of the fact that what is going on, what we experienced in our senses, is an image constructed in our minds out of the promptings that we get by way of this Rube-Goldberg chain of connections from energy stresses in space time to images in our mind. Once you start grasping that and realizing that there are things that can be done, there is wiggle room there, that the ordinary sort of pigheadedly literally scientific sense doesn’t allow for it, then life gets interesting. And that is one of the things that opens the door to magic.
But, of course, that is precisely what the scientific community doesn’t want. They have this long history there. You mention magic and you mention the M-word and they are, of course, going to bristle.
Alex Tsakiris: I was just going to say there are two ways to break that down. On one hand, there is wiggle room and on the other hand there is no wiggle room. That is the problem with the paradigm that is in place, the materialistic paradigm doesn’t offer any wiggle room for consciousness being totally this product of this brain, of this material thing that processes things in that Rube-Goldberg way that you are talking about. So as soon as we even want to explore anything that might fall out of that, science needs to jam it back in or the whole enterprise kind of comes tearing down. And we go, gee, how do we really measure things. So I kind of see exactly what you are saying and I think it breaks down in a couple of ways. So one, it breaks down in the physics sense, like you say. What really is an atom? And it is 99% nothing. We have all heard that, so your coffee cup is really nothing and it is standing on a desk that is really nothing, and how all that works we are not really sure. And then there is this observer effect where we don’t even know that if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, is there really a tree? All those philosophical problems come really right to the front of the questions that physics is really asking. And I think that as soon as we step into the absurdity of what we are being given in terms of answers for that, we have to kind of reach over to the other side and look at anything approaching magic or anything approaching what might lie beyond that, and we have to say, gee, are we really so sure that we should have dismissed that all along? And to me that is what really kind of gets at this disconnect that you are talking about between how they talk out of both sides of their mouth. Because they have to resolve these two things that according to the game they have set up, they are irresolvable.
John Michael Greer: This typically happens in the late stage of every civilization. You get this pattern of ideas about what reality is supposed to be like. And that is a very important thing to establish, a kind of map. The map of reality that allows you to figure out what is where. Every civilization has one. The problem is over time people become so fixated on the map that they forgot to check to make sure that it fits the reality. And the number of anomalies, the number of things that don’t work, just kind of piles up. But people don’t notice that because they are fixated on the map. The map has to be defended, it is true. When you start getting scientists going on about the laws of nature, okay, stop and analyze that phrase. Does nature have laws? Who passed them? How are they enforced? It is a metaphor. It is just a metaphor, and ultimately it is a Christian metaphor with the serial number filed off. The laws of nature are originally the idea of God as a kind of medieval king handing down laws for his created subjects to obey.
But they have taken this metaphor, lost track of the fact that it is a metaphor, and are saying are the laws of nature are what’s real. And if your experience doesn’t fit our conception of the laws of nature, your experience didn’t happen. If the cause isn’t known, the effect didn’t happen, which is really bad logic.
Alex Tsakiris: And not only is it bad logic, but it is so out of touch with our day-to-day experience that I think it causes a lot of people to turn their back on science. And it is amazing to me, because I have talked to so many scientists and they want to bemoan the fact that science education is in such a bad state and that public awareness or interest in science, and I just want to say – well, you have just so failed at your core mission of answering the questions that we want to know about who are we really, how do we fit in this world? And you have so flubbed it. And not only have you flubbed it but then you have filled it in with such absolute bunk than anyone can look at, like that, saying that my entire experience isn’t really an experience, it is an illusion, and I am a biological robot and anything that has meaning in life isn’t real and it is all just an illusion. People subtlely, quietly, feel a little bit of respect for the guy in the white coat so they don’t want to say it to his face, but they just turn around and privately say, ‘You know, we have to go on with our life.’ Because those people don’t have answers to anything. And then they wonder why they don’t want to listen to scientists talk about global warming or talk about anything else. They have lost credibility because they have fumbled the big stuff.
John Michael Greer: They have also lost credibility because they are not paying attention to these social and economic demands of the science and a lot of other people are. I am sure many of our listeners remember the days when all cholesterol was bad for you, when polyunsaturated fats were good for you. And science changes. The view of reality presented by science changes, and it should over time as new discoveries are made, old theories are discarded, and so on. The problem is that at any given point your average scientist wants to be able to say, ‘This is true,’ and have everybody outside the scientific community believe it on faith. And then six weeks it is well known that this isn’t true, that is true. And again we are supposed to believe them on faith. It doesn’t take that many times around that cycle before people start saying that you’re talking out of your backside. You don’t actually know what is true, this is a tentative hypothesis that will change in another six weeks.
Now, when scientists say that to each other, that’s okay. That is part of the community, that is part of the process. But when people outside the scientific community point that out to scientists, they lose it because there is that unacknowledged habit, that I acknowledge as a habit of mine, by which scientists think of themselves as a priesthood. They think of themselves as ‘the ones who know,’ and everybody should accept what they say, whatever it happens to be this week. You noted global warming. I mean, there are plenty of reasons why global – climate change activism fell flat on its face over the last decade. I think the major one is that they try to rely on the prestige of science at a time when science doesn’t have much prestige left in this culture. And so people are going, okay, the guys in the lab coats are saying that six weeks from now they will be saying something different, but if you point that out to scientific types, again, they lose it. They can’t handle that people are watching them and rolling their eyes and going, ‘Yeah, that’s this week’s truth.’
Alex Tsakiris: Well, I think the other problem with global warming, and we have explored it on this show, that science is so married to political activism – not activism, that isn’t the right word. It is so married to the political power structure and it is married to economic interest, that we just have a hard time buying any of that. So when the whole thing came out with carbon trading, worldwide carbon trading, we saw oh my God, these guys are trying to create a trillion dollar trading business that is just going to bankrupt us all. And one way or another, at least get into our pockets in another way. I think a lot of people turned around and said, ‘Okay, I get it. In some way or another this is some scam to get money.’ And I had a friend who was directly involved in a startup in the Silicon Valley that was developing some kind of weird carbon trading software app thing. It was a pretty major thing. They had raised millions of dollars in venture capital money. And they went to Reverend Al Gore for participation.
And what they heard was, hey, if Al even steps in the room he gets 25% of the deal, going in. So the amount of money – and as many people have noted, you look at the amount of money that Gore gained. His net worth went well over a billion dollars from this thing that he had going, this idea, this platform that he had. I mean, it is hard to not have a cynical view of the “science” about climate change – whatever the science may be. I mean, I think we are all open to learning what the realities are and what we might be able to do, but it is just hard to sort all that out, isn’t it?
John Michael Greer: It is hard to sort it out and it is especially hard because, as you say, there are these very evident economic and political interests that are playing football with it. I mean, you talked about Al Gore on a global level and you have got the way that the United States and the EU were trying to use climate policy to shove the BRIC nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China, into a one-down position at the Copenhagen talks. So it was just another way to try to play a trade war. And the BRIC nations are perfectly well aware of that fact and they simply rolled their eyes and said, ‘Yeah, try another one.’
Now, the thing is, from everything that I can see, there is reasonable evidence that treating the atmosphere as an aerial sewer to dump greenhouse gases is a bad idea, and that it is causing climate disruption. Exactly how that –
Alex Tsakiris: Gee, what an astounding idea. Didn’t we know that from the last 40 years when we saw the ads of the smoke stacks and all that? We all know that.
John Michael Greer: We all know that. The question of how that is going to play out over the next few centuries is a complex one, but there is also this other world of financial, political, geopolitical game play going on with global warming and anthropogenic climate change. What Thomas Freedman in one of his few real square hits called ‘Global Weirding,’ as an excuse. So you have got to keep those two things separate and keep an eye on both of them at the same time.
Alex Tsakiris: Maybe then it leads back to it takes a much to we take a much bigger picture. I love what you have written about myth. And again in such a wonderful place to do it because you are coming at it both from a very practical sense of what is going on in our culture society, but you are also looking at it from an occult philosophy standpoint, which brings a freshness to it. Here are some of the things that you have written:
Our biggest myth is that we don’t have myths.
Our myth is progress. Our history is cycles, rise and fall of civilization.
And let me do one more, because I really love this one:
Our only version of history most people in the industrial world is willing to consider is one that explains how people have stopped believing in all the obviously muddle-headed things we used to believe and learned to see that reality is sitting right out in front of them all along.
Maybe you want to pull apart that last one? I love the idea that our idea of our history is always how we have come through the Dark Ages, whatever they may be, however we define them, and now we are in a period of enlightenment. We have arrived. And I think there are so many parallels with spirituality that we might want to talk about, too. Because that is always the real, I guess ‘gotcha’ in spirituality as well, to have this illusion that we have somehow arrived some place. But let’s not go there right away.
John Michael Greer: Yeah, the thing – or one of the ways that I have taken to talking about this fantasy of ours, that we know the truth about the universe and everyone else in history was just playing stupid – is to think of it as a ritual drama, a ritual play. Like an Easter pageant or a passion play – every culture has its ritual dramas, where it can sort of enact the sacred truths of their society. Our ritual drama, if you have seen any TV special or children’s book about science and this kind of stuff – you have got certain stock characters. You have got the lone visionary who sees the universe the way it really is, you have got the conservative opposition who are going on in dull tones, oh you can’t do that. And you have this particular conflict between them that just sort of lumbers through, and history gets rewritten, seriously. It gets massively falsified to fit that paradigm. A classic example – did you ever get taught that in 1492 when Columbus set sail, most people thought the world was flat?
Alex Tsakiris: Right.
John Michael Greer: Yeah, everybody gets taught that. It is a lie. It takes 15 minutes of research in any decently-stocked library to prove that it is a complete lie, a manufactured falsehood dating from the 19th century. In 1492, the standard high school astronomy textbook – and yes they had high school astronomy textbooks in 1492 – it was called De Sphaera by John of Sacrobosco and was in Latin. That was the language everybody used for scholarship, and it starts with a set of proofs that the world is round, the world is a sphere. It is much smaller than the sun and much bigger than the moon, and the stars are so far away that you don’t even bother to talk about it. And the proofs are accurate. Everybody who could read, who had more than a basic reading knowledge of Latin in 1492 knew the world was round. Columbus had an inaccurate measure of how big around the earth was. He thought that Asia was where the Americas are. He was wrong, and if there hadn’t been two undiscovered continents in the way, he and all of his crew would have starved to death in the middle of the Pacific.
But we have this idea, we have got to have the lone visionary who is right, we have got to have the doleful chorus of conservatives, who always say the same things. It is always, ‘Oh, you can’t do that. Oh, you’re going to upset the balance of the cosmos.’ And every single quote advanced – notice the metaphor there – scientific advances. Towards what? In what direction? The direction of progress. What defines something as progress? Because it is close to us. The fantasy is that we are the pinnacle of the cosmos. We are the gate through which everyone has to go to get to the future. That is why people talk about these people being back in the Stone Age, these people back in the Middle Ages – people in the 21st century world. Everybody else is on the march of progress, which leads inevitably to us. That is the fantasy, that is the mythology.
Alex Tsakiris: Well you know, it is interesting you bring up Columbus because it also points out the things that we edit out of that history as well. And I think that it is an important part of the myth of progress and the myth of constant improvement towards the pinnacle of our existence. I mean, Columbus was a horrible, horrible mass murderer, right? He wiped out well over a million people and he was conscious about doing it, if you really read his letters. Our history – and this is one thing I hadn’t heard you really speak on or write on, and I would love to hear your thought. Some people have pointed out, and some historians have really pointed out and I have taken notice, that our history is so much tied to this mass murder, butchering, and gore at a really hand-to-hand level that we can’t really get. So Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun or those people, each guy had to lop off the head of ten of the captives that we took over. The hand-to-hand combat of the Romans fighting, and killing people –
John Michael Greer: And now we have sitting people sitting in an air-conditioned room in Nevada controlling drones by satellite, blowing up wedding parties and children.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, there are two ways of looking at that. There is one way of looking at that and saying we are so far removed from it now, or the other way of looking at is where we are the descendants of the Vikings. So that post-traumatic stress disorder that has been handed down over generations of generations is still right there and right beneath the surface. So when we see the photos of Abu-Grab and we want to go, ‘Oh my God, that’s not us.’ Hell yes, that’s us. That has always been us.
John Michael Greer: Social primates – most social primates – are pretty violent. Chimpanzees defend their territories with violence and occasionally a stronger band will wipe out a weaker one. Human beings have been doing that for probably about as long as there were human beings. We are not naturally good, loving, peaceful, kind, or any of that stuff. We have the capacity to be something other than murders. We do have that potential, but it is a potential that has to be striven for. It doesn’t happen automatically. I think in a lot of ways one of the great flaws of the popular spirituality of our time is this notion that human beings are naturally good, and kind, and sweet, and pure, and peaceful. And if we just get something or other out of the way we can all be good and sweet and kind and peaceful. Never mind the fact that the economic order that supports our comfortable middle class lives depends on the suffering of millions of people in the third world.
Alex Tsakiris: Exactly. So how do we resolve that? What is the leap there from that to magic? From the industrial need of our society to consume, to dominate, to conquer, and then the jump over to magic? How do we – and what is magic in that sense?
John Michael Greer: Well the definition that I learned back in the day when I was first doing my studies is that magic is the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will. Now, you will notice – people tend to go, ‘Oh.’ Because that doesn’t sound like Merlin and hats covered with stars. But you will notice that first of all it doesn’t say whose consciousness is being changed. One of the things that everybody has to learn in the course of magical training is that we all start out trying to manipulate the world around us. And ultimately you do that and you end up with the kind of thing we have been talking about because the world doesn’t manipulate well. It tends to manipulate back, it resists manipulation, you lose your temper, and you start beating on it. Things go downhill from there. Back to the coffee cup that we talked about earlier. We are assembling our worlds out of the raw data of sensation according to patterns that we hold in our minds, typically unconsciously. Very often the things that make our lives unsatisfactory have nothing to do with what is out there in the world and everything to do with how we assemble it.
And so one of the basic processes, one of the core processes of magical training is a recognition that you start by changing yourself. You start by getting in under the hood of your own mental images, your own mental processes, your own expectations, your own emotional drives, and you say, okay, how am I frustrating myself? How am I making my life miserable? Because we all do, and we spend our time beating on the rest of the world because we haven’t realized that we are the source of our own problems. And the one common feature in all of your problems is you, and that is true of all of us. And so once you realize that you can start disconnecting various projects and say I am offloading say all of this unresolved anger from a childhood, and I am offloading it on these other people over there producing this brittle, angry, tense relationship which blows up in violence. Well, a lot of us thought that. How about if we recognize that I am carrying these emotions around and that I can do something else with them other than project them blindly onto some other person whose skin color I don’t like, let’s say, or whose religion I don’t like or whose politics, etc. People have all kinds of reasons for projection.
Equally, there is something that I think I want I life whether it is money or whether it is hot sex, you know, much to be said for that but you get the idea. I want to have this lifestyle, and you stop and you realize that what is happening is you are taking emotional needs from yourself and projecting it onto these physical substances where they don’t belong. You can have all the money in the world and you haven’t met the emotional need because the emotional need is inside you and it is not in the stacks of thousand dollar bills. So with magical training we learn to detach those projects. You learn to say that is not what is actually going on here, is it? I have created this world of phantasms onto which I am loading all of my unresolved emotional problems and then wondering why life sucks. Instead, you stop, you say no – this is internal to me. I need to actually resolve this in myself and then guess what? This huge problem that has been giving me, been making my life miserable for decades, isn’t there anymore because I know what is going on.
Alex Tsakiris: How does this relate to druidry? I know very, very little about druids other than kind of the cartoon image that I get.
John Michael Greer: White robe, golden sickle, mistletoe, Stonehenge, oh yeah.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, I see pictures of you in the white robe there, so –
John Michael Greer: Oh yeah, I have a sickle. I have mistletoe, I have been to Stonehenge. So basically this is kind of a two-part explanation. The ancient druids – the modern druids are not ancient druids, and I will get to that. The ancient druids were the priests and priestesses, the wizards, the intellectuals, the scholars, of the ancient Celtic people in Ireland, Britain, and what is now France. And we don’t know when they got started or a great deal about them, all the surviving information amounts to about ten pages of a loose translation and half of contradicts the other half. We know they were there, we know they were kind of famous, and we know they apparently had a very important part, and then the Roman empire showed up, followed by Christianity, end of story. Okay, fast forward to the early part of the 18th century, England. The early industrial revolution – you think that pollution is new? Not a chance – smoke stacks and coal fumes everywhere. Casual devastation of the natural environment and you have two ideologies that are being presented for public consumption. There is the traditional ideology of dogmatic Christianity, and there is the newly-founded idea of dogmatic scientific materialism – take your pick. Both of them, by the way, cheerleading the industrial revolution. So you have various people looking around for a third option, saying, ‘That sucks, that sucks, no thank you. I want something else.’
One group of them found inspiration in what little was known of the ancient druids. They studied that and said, ‘That is kind of what we want to be.’ We want to find meaning and value to root our spiritual paths in nature, not in the pursuit of power over the material universe through science and technology. Not through bailing out of the world to another world on the far side of death as promised by the dogmatic religion at that time. Don’t worry about everything you are suffering in this life. It will all be well when you are dead, that kind of thing. So they took a lot of their inspiration from what was known of the ancient druids and ended up adopting the name for themselves.
So from the 18th century there were lots of little groups like this but the druids seemed to have hit on something that worked in year after year generation and after generations, century after century, we have been around, developing our spirituality of nature. And that has gradually drawn on various from various corners of the intellectual cosmos, one of the things it was drawn on mostly during the 20th century was it picked up a lot of materials from the revival of magic. So you get a lot of people in the druid scene who are to one extent or another very familiar with certain schools of magical practice who are teachers of magic science and so there is this nature-centered spirituality and there is the magical dimension of existence, and those two have created quite an interesting fusion. And it is one that a lot of us find more compelling, more convincing, and frankly more interesting than either the sort of dogmatic pie in the sky, when you die, variety of orthodox religion or, on the other hand, the dogmatic scientific materialism, you know, man the conqueror of nature, and then you die – end of story.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, and I mean there is a certain amount of strangeness about it in terms of how our culture relates to it but I almost feel like, to a certain extent that you kind of embrace that. Like, if you need to be shocked out of thinking beyond the couple of boxes you normally see, then fine I will shock you a little bit, but open your ears and listen. Let’s probe into this magic thing a little bit because it is another word that really throws people for a loop. Magic and occult and all this. The one thing that I always come back to is like, ‘Hey man, if you think magic is something foreign to what you have experienced in your Christian education or your Christian background, forget it.’ I mean, magic is like so intertwined with the Bible. The Bible is a book about magic all over the place, some of it is ordained in the doctrine of the church and some of it isn’t, but there is plenty of it there.
John Michael Greer: That is what happens, yes. There has been this tendency on the part of the sort of religious mainstream in the west to insist that magic – there is no common ground between magic and Christianity. And they are quite simply wrong. Most of – just on a purely headcount basis, most of the serious magicians in the western world for the last thousand years have been devout Christians. Many of the systems of magical practice that are out there are thoroughly Christian. They are based on the basic tenants of Christian belief. There are many schools out there where you have to be a baptized, believing, Trinitarian Christian to get in the door. But because it is a complicated thing, why in our culture the mainstream religion should turn its back on so useful and so creative a dimension of life while in most other cultures, that is not the case. If you go to Japan, for example, magical practice is very heavily part of many of the certain number of the important sects of Buddhism. And Shinto, the traditional folk religion of Japan, is riddled with magic and divination and nobody worries about it.
Alex Tsakiris: So let’s break it down and make sure we are not talking in abstract terms. So we go back to the Bible – we talk about magic and you can think about it in the kind of old-fashioned, 60s TV show kin do of way, there are spells, there are laying of hands, there is anointing with magical oils, and all these kinds of things. And in other traditions – Indian traditions, and I don’t know about the Japanese tradition that you mentioned, but it is kind of the same.
John Michael Greer: It is pretty much, though. And think of it this way – who were the three guys who showed up at Bethlehem when Christ was born? According to the gospel, three magi – three magicians, who were guided there by their study of astrology. And with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We always used to joke gold, Frankenstein, and myrrh, and wondering what the Christ child would do with a large green monster. I am sure he would come up with something, but you have these three wizards coming out of the east who had figured out what was going on with their studies of the heavens, astrology – ooh. And who show up and correctly identify what is going on and duck out fast so that Harrod doesn’t figure out where they have been. And okay, so there is something wrong with this?
Alex Tsakiris: You know there is also an interesting parallel that I have never really spoke with anyone about, but I would be interested in your thoughts of it. There is a certain kind of shut up and calculate aspect to magic and by then I mean when you get into physics and you study quantum physics and they have reached this point early on in the early 1900s when they say what is this? This doesn’t make any sense? How can this be? Then there was this school of thought that said, look, shut up and calculate. Let’s just do the calculations and see how we can practically apply these quantum effects and these quantum theories that seem to be playing out, and a lot came out of that. Global satellites – we have all sorts of technology that we “couldn’t” live without if we hadn’t pursued that path. But they never really grappled with the really hard to understand philosophical implications of what this means –
John Michael Greer: I see where you are going with this, go on.
Alex Tsakiris: I just think that in the same way that the magical community has done kind of the same thing, saying well, let’s not worry about what is the true order of the universe or the higher spiritual order of this. Let’s just try this. This seems to work, this seems to be efficacious over this period of time, shut up and calculate. Shut up and do the spell, you know?
John Michael Greer: Yeah, well you get that. You unquestionably get that, especially the sort of popular magic that pervades every society, including ours – it is very much shut up and cast this spell type of stuff. Fortunately, there has only been some interest in the magical community, in the dimensions of magical theory about what does this imply about the universe. You actually surprised me. What I thought you were saying is that mainstream religion is actually practicing magic but they are doing it on a shut up and calculate basis.
Alex Tsakiris: Totally.
John Michael Greer: Don’t ask why these things work, just shut up and do the ceremony.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, and they are even worse. They are just not even going to be open to all but just a small sliver of it and it gets distilled down more and more.
John Michael Greer: And the thing is, there is a point to that. There is a point to the shut up and calculate. Again, you can accomplish certain practical things but it becomes a problem when it is taken too far and when you start slapping really rigid limits on what people are allowed to think, on what questions people are allowed to ask. It is one of the dissenting problems of spiritual hierarchies, they tend to slap such questions down hard. Fortunately at this point in the druid community and in the broader magical community we don’t have much in the way of effective hierarchy and so people can ask the questions they want.
Alex Tsakiris: Here is another quote from you. Rationalism suffers from the innate and lethal tendency to lose track of the difference between the abstractions that it contemplates and the universe those abstractions are meant to represent. I think there is some of that going on too, you know. Do you want to expound on that?
John Michael Greer: Yeah, and we can see that in magical things too, especially in religion. The entire arguments of atheism are based on a simple logical fallacy – statements X, Y, and Z about gods are absurd, therefore gods are absurd, right? And it is a simple fallacy of composition. Anybody with basic logical training should be able to see through that and the fact that they can’t does not speak well for them. But of course we get the same thing in a religious setting. You have got people saying, ‘Well, the important things are the dogmas.’ What are the dogmas? The dogmas are the mental models, these statements we have, the abstractions into which we fit the raw data of religious experience. And if religious experience doesn’t follow those abstractions, out come the torches or worse. It is a common tendency. We want to have a nice, neat model. But one of the things we know, and one of the things we know absolutely about the whole spiritual realm is that it is not equal to our models. It is not nice and neat. It does what it wants to. And if our models don’t fit that, too bad for the models.
Alex Tsakiris: But then what does that say about our attempts to try and change these models that we live within in this material world? I mean, I think a lot of your work is about the decline of the industrial society that we have come to accept and kind of put up on this pedestal. And you make some great points, but doesn’t a spiritual perspective kind of demand that we not play that game rather than that we become so sure that game is headed in this direction or that direction? Don’t we know from our spiritual insight that it is not about trying to fix that game, it is about trying to rise above it on a personal level?
John Michael Greer: Yes, but there are two games going on here. There are two games going on here – there is a spiritual game, but we are not just spiritual beings. We are not disembodied bubbles of consciousness. We are also bodied, material, animal beings who have to get enough to eat or we suffer, who have various needs and are trying to make things work one way or another, how we are stupidly, on the material plane. Some of the renaissance magical writers used to put this in a very charming way. They talked about human beings as being amphibians. Think of your amphibian animals like newts and so on. They live in the water and they live on land. Human beings, we are amphibians – we live in matter, we live in spirit – we live in both at the same time. And we can’t just do one without losing stuff that is essential to being human, without losing part of the core of who we are. And so on the one hand, yeah, each of us needs on an individual level to take such steps as we may, in any given life, to rise a notch above our models to look at them from above, to get that spiritual perspective on things, and to move closer towards or further into a broader, higher, and more complete perspective.
But we also have to put food on the table. We also have to not just put food on our own tables, we also have to do what we can to guide our communities, our families, our societies, into more productive ways of living the world. And so you have got those two patterns going on at the same time. On the one hand, the movement is in the spiritual direction. On the other hand we have gotten ourselves in physical terms in a world of hurt and that is not going to go away just because we all get a little wiser. We have done things to the world that are going to last for a very long time, and we have to live with the consequences of that. And we have also got a situation where most of the people in the world are busy pursuing a model of existence, a model of happiness on earth, which is going to lead to unparalleled destruction, and that is also something that we have – that is common. I mean, civilization ever has to be dragged to its destruction, we all take it at a run, yelling in triumph, convinced that the road to destruction is actually going to lead us to utopia on earth. That is always what happens, and we are in the middle of it right now.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, maybe. Maybe we are in the middle of it. Maybe we are at the end of it, maybe we are at the beginning of it. But I think most of us feel that when we get into these kind of apocalyptic visions of either economic collapse or environmental collapse, that there is just a disconnect with me, how I live my life, my carbon footprint. I mean, who can really relate to that in any real sense when there is such a mismatch, a disconnect? Half the world’s population is living on two dollars a day. I live in such obscene abundance compared to that, I can never make those two balance. And I can go move, I support the idea that at least you back up your talk. I mean, you live this low footprint life on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains. I don’t, and I don’t even try and pretend.
I don’t even recycle – it is stupid to recycle. Where I live, the tiny little community where I live, they drive around these monstrous trucks among these houses that are spread apart, to collect three or four plastic bottles from this person or that person. It makes absolutely no economic sense, no environmental sense, and yet I am supposed to feel good about recycling? I take that small example and I extrapolate up to the larger, and I say it is the same thing. It is like these environmentalists want to run around and talk about carbon footprints and then as soon as you bring up China or India, they are like, ‘Well, we don’t really want to talk about China or India. Let me tell you about Sweden, and about how they have reduced their carbon.’ Let’s get real, let’s somehow try and connect that impulse to do well with policy, with actual political action that can make a difference. And the connection just isn’t there for a lot of reasons that wind up being – start looking like old fashioned politics and power and war and struggle and stuff that we are so far away from having any influence of that I don’t think it really matters.
John Michael Greer: Okay, let’s take that apart because there are several things going on here. I am going to go back to Al Gore as an example. Because Al Gore – we talked about how he profits off the whole climate thing. He has also done a huge amount to destroy climate change activism? Why? Because of his frequent flyer miles and his huge, air-conditioned mansion. You cannot encourage other people to change unless you are willing to walk your talk. If you want other people to change you need to model the change for them. You need to show them it is possible to live in a much less extravagant lifestyle, and still be comfortable and still be happy. Until people are willing to do that, you are not going to have any change at all. When we talk about making sweeping changes on the political scale, okay, that is an issue, but the first thing that has to happen is that somebody needs to be willing to make those changes in their own life, because you know as well as I do that if everyone is going around saying, ‘I want everyone else to cut their carbon footprint while I climb on the jet plane to my next speaking gig,’ people are sensitive to hypocrisy. They know what that amounts to.
And so on a strategic level, on a level of strategy of influencing people, somebody has got to model it. Somebody has got to show that it is possible. Somebody has got to show that a lifestyle can be in low in carbon and high in joy. And the fact is that something is happening now as people begin to see and it begins to sink in that these sort of middle class activist notions that we can sit in our comfortable suburban homes and be activists and profit from the suffering of millions of other people, that doesn’t cut it. We actually have to change our own lives if we are going to change anything else. So we have that on the one hand.
Okay, recycling – you have chosen a specific example. And it is an example that in many places you are right, it doesn’t make sense. Where I live, I live in a city of 20,000 people. It is an old red brick mill town. The houses are not cheek by jowl, but they are really close, so it actually does make a lot of sense to recycle here. We now just recently have a recycling program. And the garbage trucks are coming around anyway to pick up the trash, so people have their recycle bins out. It saves the city a chunk of money because they don’t have to pay for the disposal of the various recycling products and it is a win-win situation for everybody. If you live in a tiny town with vast – or one of these ghastly suburbs that Dmitri Orlov describes as looking like a cemetery where you have the neatly mowed lawns with the houses rising like tombstones and nobody should disturb those who sleep there, and probably recycling is not going to be an economically viable approach. But there are other things you can do, like not live in a place like that. Actually, increasingly that is common. A lot of the big, outer suburbs are dying on the vine. It never made any sense for anything but real estate speculation.
So you have got a range of things that you can do. Recycling is not the only thing you can do, and remember, if there are all these people out there living on less than two dollars a day, and you decrease your carbon footprint and you decrease your expenditures and your extravagance by a fairly modest amount, you are opening up a lot of space for a lot of poor people. So as a rich – as a member of the global 1% –
Alex Tsakiris: I am not quite in the 1% –
John Michael Greer: Globally, if you make more than $30,000 a year, you are in the 1%.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, yeah, correct.
John Michael Greer: There you go – globally you are in the 1%. So you have a much bigger impact on the planet than anybody else. Make use of that. Do something constructive with it. That is how I would like to rephrase that. But I would like to go on before we bounce to another topic, just very briefly, because what lies behind all of the reasons not to do anything in most cases, is fear. Fear of change, fear of letting go of these various middle class trophies, because then we realize how empty they actually are. We fill our lives with crap because our lives actually suck. We have bought into this idea of this is what you should have, you should have a big, sprawling house. You should have the big, loud car, the plasma screen TV, blah, blah, blah. And we sit there feeling empty and discontented and bored because none of it actually means anything. None of it actually worthwhile.
Alex Tsakiris: Right on, right on.
John Michael Greer: So we need to stop and say okay, how about if I get rid of some of these things and do something else with my life? It will terrify us.
Alex Tsakiris: So that is the leap. I am with you right up to that point and I think that speaks to the deeply spiritual aspect of this that can be the gift, right, so all this excess and this industrial nonsense, this sociological kind of schizophrenic, don’t worry about the war in Afghanistan, just go out and shop, kind of stuff. And people are like okay, but what is really going on here? But when you get past that and it generates that impulse to do something, like you are talking about, there is another place you can get to and that is okay, what should I do with that impulse? Should I reach out to the person I am walking across the street from who I don’t normally smile to and I do smile at? That is what I think we should do. I think that activism needs to be at that scale and we don’t need to kind of delude ourselves into thinking that we are going to change this machine.
Let me just interject this little story. I would love to get your thoughts on this. Back in November, 2010 – I live right on the coast of California. I look right out at the Pacific Ocean, it is a fabulous view, and 25 or 50 miles outside – this is national news, international news – there was this cork-shaped contrail that seemed to be rising from the ocean that everyone who is anyone in defense said, ‘Hey, that’s a missile, probably fired from a submarine.’ On that very same day, a nearby Carnival Cruise ship, a new one, with all these built-in redundancies, super power thing, completely loses power, dead in the water. Unheard of, unfathomable that this could happen, except that if you really listen to the people who know, what they suspect happened is that the Chinese were sampling, testing out, saber rattling, an EMP weapon, to show the United States what we can do. And those suspicions are followed up in just this last year when the Chinese were very open and up front with the fact that they had used an EMP weapon to disable a Japanese spy satellite. So there is the tiniest fraction of the American Public who are aware of any of this stuff, but if they were you have to conclude that the gain is so much bigger, so much deeper, so much more complicated than we can ever imagine than to think that any of this stuff that we are talking about could really make a difference with these people who are pulling the puppet strings and controlling our culture. Forget about it. Be nice to your neighbors, create a nice pot luck this Sunday, get together, help people out, be good, live a good life, and don’t worry about it. It is the Christian – give unto Cesar what is Cesar’s, probably a meme that was introduced by the Romans to control the masses, but there is a deeper spiritual truth to it, I think. Don’t worry about that stuff.
John Michael Greer: I prefer the old piece of advice that was given to mariners back in the days of sail. When you went up in the rigging, one hand for yourself, one hand for the ship. You had one hand that you could cling like grim death to the rigging so you didn’t get tossed overboard and drown, and you had one hand that was hauling on a rope or doing whatever else you were supposed to do. I think each of us can face both ways. We can look at what is going on in our own lives and we can change our own lives. We can change what we do, we can change how we relate to our communities, and things like that. But it is important not to get too caught up in this myth of elite omnipotence, because I would suggest that is also something that people in the political classes are very concerned, to distribute the idea that they are the omnipotent controllers of the planet. Because if everyone believes that nobody is going to hassle them.
In fact what we have got are a bunch of largely clueless people who grew up very rich, who have no contact with the real world. I mean, have you ever spent time with people who are really, really well-off and were raised that way? I have had the opportunity to do that on some occasions. And they are the most dysfunctional people you have ever met. They literally don’t know how to wipe their own bottoms without help. And these are the people who are guiding our destinies. Look at the constantly fumbled American foreign policy the last 20 years, and that is partly because we are in a situation where there is no functional solution at all, when an empire is going down, it is going down. And no matter what you do, it just goes down in a different way – that is one of the lessons of history. But we have been really dumb about it. We have made mistakes that, for example, the British empire was very careful to avoid back in its day. And the thing is the people who run America are not that bright. They like to portray themselves as the masters of the planet, but they are just very rich and temporarily in control of a big, sprawling, institution and system that has control of a lot of money and power and guys with guns. That is all.
Now, does that mean that we should all get out there and overthrow them? No. A, that is not going to happen and B, that is something that would be very much playing into some of the patterns that they have been worried about and they have been trying to build towards for some time now. There are other ways to deal with that. There are other ways to deal with a dysfunctional ruling class and a failing empire in a civilization on its way down.
Alex Tsakiris: What are some of your favorite ways? And where might people go to find out more about what you think about that particular little piece of this puzzle?
John Michael Greer: The books that I published from New Society Publications, which are all on the future industrial society, most of those touch on these issues in one way or another. My recent book, Decline and Fall, the end of Empire and the future of democracy in 21st century America is all about this. So that would be the place that I would recommend for people to go to. As for what to do, it is one of those things where choose one end of the puzzle and start putting pieces together. One of the concepts I want to hand our listeners right now is the concept of what post modern theorist Ewa Ziarek called desensus. We have all heard about consensus, where everyone sits down and comes up with a common idea and we all go and do it. Desensus is the opposite – everybody figure out what part of the puzzle they want to work on and we all go our separate ways and work on it. We need desensus right now, there is no one right way. There is no one solution.
The solution is for everybody to say, ‘Okay, this is what I am going to work on. Person A is going to work on local food securities and work on developing the farmer’s markets, the local gardens, the community-supported agriculture that will enable people to feed themselves as industrial corporate agriculture begins to grind to a halt under the burden of its own economic failures. Person B is going to work on revitalizing local democracy. Person C is going to work on something else. There are a million different things to do if we are going to rebuild some kind of humanly viable society in the wake of the collapse of the industrial age.
Alex Tsakiris: But John, does the impetus for those actions have to be the post industrial age, the collapse of everything that we know?
John Michael Greer: No, there are a lot of reasons to do it. It so happens that one of the major reasons that we need to do these things is because the cozy system that we are used to is falling apart. But there are a lot of other good reasons to do it. You can get into local food security simply because you loathe the taste of these sort of plastic pseudo-vegetables you can get at the grocery store and dimly remember that locally-grown, locally-harvested, fresh produce is much better for you and much better tasting.
Alex Tsakiris: And at the same time you can connect with all the other people around the world who are in the same situation. It is a wonderful way to experience that connection that is real on a spiritual level.
John Michael Greer: And that is another benefit, and another reason to do things. Again, desensus is a good model because it allows for many different motivations, many different directions in a problem where there is no one solution.
Alex Tsakiris: Well John, your work is wonderful and I can’t believe an hour has flown by so quickly. I am sure we could talk more and more. Tell us what is coming up for you. You have kind of talked a little bit about you are a very prolific writer and people can check out your two blogs. There is a ton of great stuff, and I don’t know how you crank it out like that but you do. So many of the posts are worthwhile. Tell us where people can go to stay up-to-date with what is going on with you.
John Michael Greer: Okay, my two blogs are The Arch Druid Report – http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com And the other one is the Well of Galabes, that is the magical one. And that is http://galabes.blogspot.com In terms of stuff that will be out shortly, the big news is my novel of the decline and fall of the United States, Twilight’s Last Gleaming. It will be out at the end of October. I would be interested to see how people react to it. But yeah.
Alex Tsakiris: Great, well I am sure a lot of your fans will be anxious to see what that is all about. Well, it has been great talking to you and getting to know you. I really appreciate it and I will definitely be following your work and maybe have you back on some time in the future.
John Michael Greer: Thank you, I look forward to that.