[The following is a guest review by Paracelsian of John Michael Greer’s new book The Blood of the Earth (Scarlet Imprint, 2012). Paracelsian is the pseudonym of a UK based Pagan whose practice explores engaged & embodied relationship with the spirits of the land. He is fascinated by the stories that we (as both Pagans and more generally as Humans) tell about ourselves and to give meaning to the world around us, and consequently is involved in interfaith work.]
I’ve never been a great fan of “futurists” (in the sense of those who professionally predict the future), but if you can get past Greer’s self-identification in this category, The Blood of the Earth is a richly rewarding work; provoking, intelligent, timely, and ultimately – in spite of its rather gloomy subject matter – both optimistic and inspiring.
The Blood of the Earth is a valuable contribution towards encouraging people to think about facing what Professor Kerri Facer describes as “the 21st Century Canyon”. This is the period covering the next fifty or so years when the global issues about which so many have warned us for so long (over-population, climate change, exhaustion of water supplies, and the end of cheap energy – all the usual humvee-drivers of the apocalypse) will all begin to simultaneously and profoundly affect the world in which we live.
Unlike many other writers in the genre, Greer does not devote his work to reheating the scientific narrative of peak oil (though he does point those who remain unconvinced in the right direction). The particular contribution of The Blood of the Earth is that Greer posits a unique narrative framework to analyse the way that we approach these issues: that of Magic, or at least, a Magical approach to thinking. This use of this term might immediately put some readers off, but fear not; this is neither the magic of Dennis Wheatley nor that of Harry Potter (nor, indeed that of Silver Ravenwolf), but Magical thinking as an alternative meta-narrative to that of modernist consumerism; a different way of thinking. Some of the book is spent effectively justifying this usage, and Greer accomplishes this task with elegance and erudition.
Magic, for Greer, is just a different meta-narrative, an alternative way of talking about what is going on in our world. He argues that by adapting this meta-narrative (and thus by dumping more conventional paradigms), we are free to break out of the ruts of thought that constrain our normative approach to the world, and in particular our societies’ addiction to endless consumption. Simply put, by accepting that there are other ways of thinking, we will be able to see things in a different light. Ultimately this is a valuable insight into the current ecological situation; Greer argues that if our conventional ways of thinking are not working, then we need to be using other ways of thinking that will actually have an impact.
Greer uses the neoplatonist distinction between thaumaturgy (magic as wonderworking) and theurgy (magic that transforms consciousness) as a useful method to separate the ways that one can use magical thinking as a way of interpreting our understanding of both the individual and of society in general. He suggests that one can consider industrial capitalist society as a thaumaturgical one – where the masses are governed and controlled by the conscious manipulation of symbols. If you think that this is unlikely, merely reflect for a moment upon the sigils and priesthood of that powerful of spirits: “the Market” – that invisible, uncontrollable power whose unstoppable “forces” control even the destiny of governments, whose priesthood chant the barbarous names of Friedman and Keynes, and to whom is sacrificed the jobs and happiness of so many. Of course, what Greer is suggesting here is that by stepping out of our normal modes of thought the blinkers fall from our eyes and we can see that the Emperor indeed has no clothes. In The Blood of the Earth, Greer uses the magical concept of incantation as an example of the dangers of this way of thinking, which have convinced so many that all one has to do to extract more oil from the ground is to keep on drilling more wells;
The Sarah Palin supporters who turned Drill, baby, drill into their mantra… believe with all their heart hat all we have to do is drill enough wells and we can have all the petroleum we want, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to get those wells drilled. (p.66)
Greer expands upon this by warning about the attraction of the emergence of what he refers to (using Wallace’s terminology) as revitalization movement; that is popular movements that spring up as people attempt to deal with, and get control of, radical changes in society; in this case the end of cheap energy. While these will be attractive, and promise much, he argues that they will, in the end, be as much use as the Ghost Dance societies were for those Indigenous American tribes who adopted it as a way of dealing with the European Invasion.
Set against this thaumaturgical approach is that of theurgy (magic that is about the transformation of consciousness). This the approach which Greer argues is much more useful in facing up to the crisis of Peak Oil, but this is a theurgy that at its heart is about freeing ourselves from the dominant narrative, and taking personal responsibility for our own thinking. Greer quotes Péladan; “fear the example of another, think for yourself… this precept of Pythagoras contains all of magic, which is nothing other than the power of selfhood” (p.102) He stresses that this is not merely jumping out of the dominant discourse of society into that of a convenient subculture, but genuinely trying to find one’s own individual way forward. This simplicity is itself the true magic in Greer’s work, and those who come to it in expectation of powerful rituals to restore the natural world, or accounts of entheogen-fuelled adventures on astral planes, will be bitterly disappointed (and possibly extremely challenged) by the genuinely powerful suggestions for action which Greer puts forward – the real magic here is to get rid of your TV and read some good books, try to live more simply, get rid of your car and use public transport or walk more, learn and practice new skills.
The Blood of the Earth is a well-polished and elegant book. It may be read easily, but it is not an easy read – it contains big challenges and a profound message, made all the more profound by its simplicity and “down-to-earth-ness”, which makes its message more scary than all those screeds that exhort us to go and hole up in the remote forest with all the ammunition and tinned goods we can afford. Greer is gently reminding us that things are going to change (and one would be a fool not to think that this is the case – even the Buddha knew that!), and that it is better to do something to prepare ourselves personally for that change, than to ignore it and hope that it is going to go away (or that scientists, the goddess, the rapture, the ascended masters, the ancient wisdom or anything else is going to save us from the consequences of our societies’ folly).
Greer is, as well as being well known in Peak Oil circles, also Grand Arch Druid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America. I think that this is a particularly significant point to note, as when thinking about contemporary Paganism in all its diversity, it is clear that there is a substantial mismatch between the story that Paganism tells about itself (a narrative where nature / Nature figures all too highly), and the level of engagement that most self-identified Pagans have with these issues in practice. Now I’m not suggesting that individual Pagans are never involved with environmental activism, but I am convinced that this is not a priority for the vast majority of individuals who would identify as being Pagan. Greer’s work (and that of other authors who seek to engage contemporary Pagans with these issues: Emma Restall Orr, for example) should at least be encouraging members of the Pagan community to be asking some questions about what it means, in practice, to espouse a nature-based spirituality. This discussion is long overdue, and needed now more than ever, or Paganism will be never be any more than the “virtual religion” critiqued by Andy Letcher. How many self-identified Pagans can honestly live up to Chas Clifton’s challenge to “live so that someone ignorant about Paganism would know from watching your life or visiting your home that you followed an ‘earth religion”. It seems obvious to me that thinking about these questions is imperative if Paganism is not only going to survive, but also to make a positive contribution to the way that humanity relates to Nature in the future (and I’m not suggestion for a moment here some kind of “Starhawk-ian Paganatopia” – but rather an general attitudinal shift, from cut-throat exploitation to acknowledged inter-relation). Simply put this is a book that everyone should read, but particularly so if you are a Pagan. I suspect that the questions that it asks should make many Pagans particularly uncomfortable, and challenge them even more than other readers.