REALITY SANDWICH IS PSYCHEDELIC CULTURE
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This article originally appeared on The Archdruid Report

 

Perhaps the most interesting responses to recent discussions I've had about of mass movements
have been those that insisted that the only alternative, either to a
mass movement in the abstract or to some specific movement, was defeat
and despair. That's an odd sort of logic, since mass movements are
hardly the only tool in the drawer; I suspect that part of what drives
the insistence is the herd-mindedness of our species – we are, after
all, social mammals with most of the same inborn habits of collective
behavior you'll find in any of the less solitary vertebrates.

Still,
the pressure toward some such movement has another potent force driving
it: the awkward fact that the vast majority of people today simply do
not want to hear how difficult their future is going to be. It doesn't
matter how good your evidence is or how well you make your case, most of
your listeners will simply look uncomfortable and change the subject.
Why this should be the case is an interesting question; I suspect that
much of the blame lies with the cult of positive thinking Barbara
Ehrenreich anatomized in a recent book, though I'm quite willing to hear alternative explanations.

Still,
for whatever reason, an extraordinary blindness to the downside has
become crazy-glued in place straight across contemporary culture. From
economists who insist that the bubble du jour (right now, in case you
haven't noticed, it's government debt) can keep on inflating forever,
through technology fans who believe devoutly that their favorite piece
of drawing-board vaporware will necessarily solve the world's problems
without side effects and with spare change left over, to millions of
ordinary people who can't or won't imagine a future without the material
abundance of recent decades, we seem to have lost the collective
capacity to recognize that things can and do go very, very wrong. It's
not merely a matter of blindness to the "black swan" events Nassim
Nicholas Taleb made famous, either; we're just as bad at seeing white
swans coming, even when they've been predicted for decades and the sky
is so thick with them that it's hard to see anything else.

It's
an appalling predicament: how can a community prepare for a troubled
future if most people tune out even the slightest suggestion that it
might be troubled? It's for this reason, seemingly, that many people in
the peak oil scene have chosen to downplay the difficulties and insist
that we can have a bright, happy, abundant future if we just pursue
whatever baby steps toward sustainability we all find congenial. I've
been assured by some of the people making such claims that they're
perfectly aware that the situation is far more difficult and dangerous
than that, but that the need to get as people involved in some kind of
movement toward sustainability is so great, they say, that waffling on
that point is as justified as it is necessary.

As it happens, I
think they're making a hideous mistake.  The question that remains is whether there are any viable
alternatives, and that's the question I want to address here.
To explain the option I have in mind, though, it may be useful to
borrow a metaphor from history.

I don't know how many of my readers know this, but my most recent publication is a translation of a very strange book from the Middle Ages. Its title is Picatrix,
and it is one of the sole surviving examples of that absolute rarity of
medieval literature, a textbook for apprentice wizards. Those of my
readers who grew up on stories about Merlin, Gandalf et al. take note:
those characters, legendary or fictional as they are, were modeled on an
actual profession that flourished in the early Middle Ages, and
remained relatively active until the bottom fell out of the market at
the end of the Renaissance.

By "wizard" here I don't mean your
common or garden variety fortune teller or ritual practitioner; we have
those in abundance today. The wizard of the early Middle Ages in Europe
and the Muslim world, rather, was a freelance intellectual whose main
stock in trade was good advice, though admittedly that came well frosted
with incantation and prophecy as needed. He had a good working
knowledge of astrology, which filled roughly the same role in medieval
thought that theoretical physics does today, and an equally solid
knowledge of ritual magic, but his training did not begin or end there.
According to Picatrix, the compleat wizard in training needed to
get a thorough education in agriculture; navigation; political science;
military science; grammar, languages, and rhetoric; commerce, all the
mathematics known at the time, including arithmetic, geometry, music
theory, and astronomy; logic; medicine, including a good knowledge of
herbal pharmaceuticals; the natural sciences, including meteorology,
mineralogy, botany, and zoology; and Aristotle's metaphysics: in effect,
the sum total of the scientific learning that had survived from the
classical world.

Now it may have occurred to my readers that this
doesn't sound like the sort of education you'd get at Hogwarts, and
that's exactly the point. Whether you believe that the movements of the
planets foretell events on Earth, as almost everyone did in the Middle
Ages, or whether you think astrology is simply a clever anticipation of
game theory that gets its results by inserting random factors into
strategic decisions to make them unpredictable, you'll likely recognize
that a soothsayer with the sort of background I've just sketched out
would be well prepared to offer sound advice on most of the questions
that might perplex a medieval peasant, merchant, baron or king. Nor, of
course, would someone so trained be restricted in his choice of active
measures to incantations alone. This is arguably why so many medieval
kings and barons had professional sorcerers and soothsayers on staff,
despite the fulminations of all the dominant religions of the age, and
why wizards less adept at social climbing found a bumper crop of
customers lower down the social ladder.

The origins of this profession are, if anything, even more interesting. Pierre Riché's useful study Education and Culture in the Barbarian West
showed in detail how the educational institutions of the late Roman
world imploded as their economic and social support systems crumpled
beneath them. In Europe – matters were a little more complex in the
Muslim world – they were replaced by a monastic system of education
that, in its early days, fixated almost entirely on scriptural and
theological studies, and by methods of training young aristocrats that
fixated even more tightly on the skills of warfare and government. Only
among families with a tradition of classical letters did some
semblance of the old curriculum stay in use, and Riché notes that while
that custom continued, those who learned philosophy, one of the core
studies in that curriculum, were widely suspected of dabbling in magic.
It's not too hard to connect the dots and see how a subculture of
freelance intellectuals, equipped with unusual knowledge and a
willingness to stray well outside the boundaries set by the culture of
their time, would have emerged from that context.

All this may
seem worlds away from the issues raised earlier in this essay, but
there's a direct connection. The wizards of the early Middle Ages were
individuals who recognized the value of certain branches of knowledge
and certain attitudes toward the world that were profoundly unpopular in
their time, and took it on themselves to preserve the knowledge,
cultivate the attitudes, and make connections with those who shared the
same sense of values,or at least were interested in making practical use
of the skills that the knowledge and attitides made possible. There
was no mass movement to support the survival of classical science in the
sixth and seventh centuries CE, and no hope of starting one; the mass
movements of the time – when they weren't simply stampeding mobs trying
to get out of the way of the latest round of barbarian invasions –
embraced the opposite opinion. How much of a role wizards might have
played in the transmission of classical learning to the future is
anyone's guess, since records of their activities are very sparse, but
it's clear that they were an intellectual resource much used during an
age when few other resources of the kind were available.

I've
come to think that a strategy of the same kind, if a bit more tightly
focused, might well be one of the best options just now for an age when
very few people are willing to make meaningful preparations for a
difficult future. Certain branches of practical knowledge, thoroughly
learned and just as thoroughly practiced by a relatively modest number
of people, could be deployed in a hurry to help mitigate the impact of
the energy shortages, economic dislocations, and systems breakdowns that
are tolerably certain to punctuate the years ahead of us. I'm sure my
readers have their own ideas about the kind of knowledge that might be
best suited to that context, but I have a particular suggestion to
offer: the legacy of the apppropriate technology movement of the 1970s.

This
was not simply a precursor of today's sustainability projects, and the
differences are important. The appropriate tech movement, with some
exceptions, tended to avoid the kind of high-cost, high-profile eco-chic
projects so common today. Much of it focused instead on simple
technologies that could be put to work by ordinary people without
six-figure incomes, doing the work themselves, using ordinary tools and
readily available resources. Most of these technologies were evolved by
basement-shop craftspeople and small nonprofits working on shoestring
budgets, and ruthlessly field-tested by thousands of people who built
their own versions in their backyards and wrote about the results in the
letters column of Mother Earth News.

The resulting
toolkit was a remarkably well integrated, effective, and cost-effective
set of approaches that individuals, families, and communities could use
to sharply reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and the industrial
system in general. It was not, I should probably point out, particularly
esthetic, unless you happen to like a lively fusion of down home funk,
late twentieth century garage-workshop, and hand-dyed back-to-the-land
hippie paisley; those of my readers who own houses and are still
fretting about their resale value (and haven't yet figured out that this
figure will be denominated in imaginary numbers for the next several
decades at least) will likely run screaming from it; those who were
incautious enough to buy homes in suburban developments with restrictive
covenants will have to step carefully, at least until their neighbors
panic. Apartment dwellers will have to pick and choose a bit; on the
other hand, those of my readers who will spend time living in tarpaper
shacks before the Great Recession ends – and I suspect a fair number of
people will have that experience, as a fair number of people did the
last time the economy lost touch with reality and imploded the way it's
currently doing – will find that very nearly everything the appropriate
tech people did will be well within their reach.

What's included
in the package I'm discussing? Intensive organic gardening, for
starters, with its support technologies of composting, green manure,
season extenders, and low-tech food preservation and storage methods;
small-scale chicken and rabbit raising, and home aquaculture of fish;
simple attached solar greenhouses, which make the transition from food
to energy by providing heat for homes as well as food for the table;
other retrofitted passive solar heating technologies; solar water
heating; a baker's dozen or more methods for conserving hot or cool air
with little or no energy input; and a good deal more. None of it will
save the world, if that hackneyed phrase means maintaining business as
usual on some supposedly sustainable basis; what it can do is make human
life in a world suffering from serious energy shortages and economic
troubles a good deal less traumatic and more livable.

This is the
suite of technologies I studied as a budding appropriate-tech geek
during the late 1970s and 1980s, and it was central to the training
program that earned me my Master Conserver certificate in 1985. One
teaches what one knows, and I'm going to take the gamble of devoting
much of the next year or so of posts on my blog, Archdruid Report, to the
details. My hope is that I can encourage at least a few of my readers
to follow the very old example mentioned earlier, and become the green
wizards of the decades ahead of us.

For that, I have come to
think, is one of the things the soon-to-be-deindustrializing world most
needs just now: green wizards. By this I mean individuals who are
willing to take on the responsibility to learn, practice, and thoroughly
master a set of unpopular but valuable skills – the skills of the old
appropriate tech movement – and share them with their neighbors when the
day comes that their neighbors are willing to learn. This is not a
subject where armchair theorizing counts for much – as every wizard's
apprentice learns sooner rather than later, what you really know is
measured by what you've actually done – and it's probably not going to
earn anyone a living any time soon, either, though it can help almost
anyone make whatever living they earn go a great deal further than it
might otherwise go. Nor, again, will it prevent the unraveling of the
industrial age and the coming of a harsh new world; what it can do, if
enough people seize the opportunity, is make the rough road to that new
world more bearable than it will otherwise be.

I also propose to
have a certain amount of fun with the wizard archetype in the posts to
come. Still, that's an example of what the Renaissance alchemist Michael
Maier called a lusus serius, a game played in earnest, a dead
serious joke. The present time, as I've suggested here more than once,
has plenty of features in common with the twilight years of classical
civilization, the age that gave rise to the legends of Merlin and
Arthur, and made it in retrospect a poetic necessity for the greatest
of all legendary kings to be advised by the greatest of all legendary
wizards.

Thus there's a certain lively irony in the fact that,
back in the days when I was sanding blades for a homebuilt wind turbine
and studying the laws of thermodynamics in Master Conserver classes in
the meeting room of the old Seattle Public library, one of my favorite
bits of music was Al Stewart's Merlin's Time:

Who would walk the stony roads of Merlin's time,

And keep the watch along the borderline?

And who would hear the legends passed in song and rhyme

Upon the shepherd pipes of Merlin's time?

In its own way, that's the question that I would like to pose to my readers; we'll see what the answer turns out to be.

 

Image by doris.haller, courtesy of Creative Commons license. 

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