Guest Post: The Blood of the Earth

Guest Post: The Blood of the Earth July 1, 2012

[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.

John Michael Greer

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.

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29 responses to “Guest Post: The Blood of the Earth”

  1. Chas Clifton’s challenge is an updating of one in Christianity: “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

  2. “live so that someone ignorant about Paganism would know from
    watching your life or visiting your home that you followed an ‘earth

    I love this concept. It is one I want to heartily live according to. However, it is also extremely expensive to do. Ironically, living low impact has rather large start-up costs.

  3. John and I have argued a little about this because I keep pointing out that there is another solution which would perfectly acceptable to the masses–reduce the population of the rest of the world to the point where there is no longer a competetion for resources.

    For some reason that is the more likely scenario that folks don’t want to face.

  4. Were the “rest of the world” (presumably all but the US) were depopulated to where there were no resource competition, the US would suffer an economic collapse that would make our present circumstances look like a day at the beach. Which would lead to some American depopulation, and indeed take pressure off the environment, but probably not acceptable to the masses.

  5. You could try to reduce the population of the rest of the world, but I don’t think you’d manage without significant casualties on your own side.
    (Personally, my defence would be to nuke Yellowstone.)

    Besides, the resources would still run out.

  6. I have an energy efficient television and live in a town with no viable transportation. and like LeohtSceadusawol said it can be expensive to start up, to expensive for many people. Before the middle and lower classes shoulder the burden of living simply, lets see the rich get rid of there lemos, plans, yachts, and mansions. they take up enough viable space that ten families can live on, consume much of the resources that are funneled up to them, and are the driving force that is fucking up the world in the first place. Force them to change and I will change. Until then I will do the best I can with small changes and prepare for the inevitable disaster because the rich will not change and will drive us off the cliff, so live as comfortably as possible with yourself and the earth, and hope you survive when it all falls apart. The earth will recover after we wipe ourselves out, but it will be a sad day when we are gone. 

  7.  You have to give the rich a reason to change. You can hardly expect altruism from them, after all.

  8. The rich probably won’t change until that reason has torn through or scared off all their hired guns and is in the process of smashing through their front doors.

  9. This is a pessimistic and fatalistic point of view. It also sounds a bit like a cop-out. Waiting for others to change before changing oneself is an excuse. While the rich and powerful are a huge force, the poor and middle class out-number them by massive margins. If we change our own habits, they will be dragged along. After all, the incredible fortunes of the Walton family have been built by selling cheap goods  to poor people. If we are not willing to sacrifice even a tiny measure of our so called quality of life (ie., consumerist addictions) for the good of society and Mother Earth, then our religion is nothing more than an adult version playing pretend.

  10. Great interview with JMG here:

    (scroll down to the March 1, 2012 show)

    ” Caroline welcomes the return of John Michael Greer, author of “Apocalypse-NOT: Everything you know about 2012, Nostradamus and the Rapture is Wrong!”

    And really, living more in harmony with Nature and the Earth is NOT expensive.  In fact, in many ways, it can even be cheaper!  Every little bit helps…and so does supporting leaders who are responsive to us.

  11.  agreed, but they have so much more power than you are giving them and are overestimating the middle classes power to “drag” them along. and it is not a cop out, there are too many middle class and poor Americans who are locked into your so called consumerist addictions with no alternative. I live in alamogordo and wall mart is the only game in town. I also don’t understand what you mean whenever you toss around the word “consumerist”. If you mean sensless buying of cloths and electronics to keep up with the latest fads, then the two classes mentioned do not have the money to do such a thing or at least I don’t. if you are talking about fast food consumption, or the consumption of meats then that is difficult to change but not impossible but it is cheap and for the poor is essential . And if you are talking about throwing away your television in order to save power, yes that is a viable option but extreme. Forcing the rich to change is not a cop out, because they are the ones who run things and are the biggest polluters and also the greatest consumers, putting the other classes to shame. We all need to change, but unless the ones who are really causing the problems change, the millions of small changes that can and must be made by the middle and lower classes won’t add up to anything. It is not enough for the middle and poor people to change, and that is what this guest post seems to say. It seems to shove all the responsibility off on us without taking into account those at the top. This problem is a massive socioeconomic/environmental problem that even making extreme individual changes won’t fix.  No offense to John Michael Greer but I don’t think his approach will work. Now that I think about it it reminds me when Confucius berated Loa Tsu for becoming a religious hermit in the face of China’s social problems.

  12. Start small. Choose one thing and learn to do it well. Don’t worry about solar panels or hybrid cars. Focus instead on learning skills and improving yourself.  It doesn’t cost much to learn to grow a few plants.  It only takes extra time to walk to the store.  If you think you can’t do it you won’t.  Just try.  The worst that could happen is that you fail, and even in failure you succeed, because you learn something in the process.

  13.  I don’t have any car. Can’t afford it.

    Don’t have much space for growing plants, either. (Land costs too much.)

    Learning skills is not an issue. making practical use of them is.

    In the UK, it is bloody expensive to live outside of the ‘norm’.

    The term ‘wage slave’ is becoming more and more literal.

  14.  The rich are the ones (over here, at least) that would win in a conflict.

    We tried a pitchfork rebellion before. Didn’t work too well.

  15.  The rich are a distinct minority. It is the majority that need to change the most.

    Consider that a significant factor in the (over) consumption in resources is population growth. The rich tend not to have that high a breeding rate, compared with the poorer end of the spectrum.

    I am not defending the rich, by any stretch, I simply think that people need to stop blaming the rich when they, themselves, are still living a high impact life.

    The thing that needs to change is at a governmental level – it should be easier for people to live low impact.

  16. JMG doesn’t recommend unplugging your TV to save power, he recommends it to save your ability to think for yourself.  Once you’re unplugged from the programming, you start making choices based on your own values.  What that means will vary from person to person; the point is to look at your own life and see what changes make sense for you starting where you are.

    Yeah, people will think you’re weird if you aren’t watching what they’re watching.  But we’re Pagans, so being thought weird isn’t anything new for us.


  17. This discussion makes me think of a discussion on the XKCD-forums (the news&articles section, for anyone who’s curious, the discussion is called ‘green-washing of the food-movement’ or something like that). Some of the people there state that urban living is actual better environmentally speaking than rural living, since people live in smaller places, thus needing less ground, and (almost) everything is closer by, which is better for transport. They do have a point, especially in an overpopulated world like ours. Imagine if everyone would actually live in a nice farm or cottage, with our own small sacred grove – I imagine there would be hardly any real wild place left. Whereas if there are just several huge metropoles (sp? sorry, English is not my native language) – we could give back more to nature without having to give up everything, or at least not too much, that science and technology has given to us. In fact, I think that science and technology are among the answers to the problems that our (future) world is facing.

    I’m also a bit suprised by the people here who are saying that being conscious of the environment, and acting on it, is more expensive…how does that work? A lot of things that I can think of – don’t leave the light and the heating on, take the bus or your bicycle if you go somewhere, grow your own veggies, to name a few of them – are actually cheaper. Granted, not everything might be practicly managable for everyone at all times, and some things do seem to be more expensive (I’m thinking of clothing that is made with the environment in mind – then again, maybe one can by vintage/second-hand instead of going to the regular store)but it’s a start.

  18.  Yes indeed.  It doesn’t matter what programs you used to watch; just give it up entirely.  I haven’t watched TV at all since about 1985, and very little since about 1965.  It’s like airing out the brain.  —  Also, the usual rhythms of brightness/dimness and loudness/softness on TV shows seem to induce light trances and enhance suggestibility.  I stopped being very much of a consumer and shopper about the same time I stopped watching TV.  It feels very good to minimize consumption.

  19.  I don’t own a car, I put an extra top on in preference of turning on the heating, I don’t use lights too much (low energy bulbs where I do)…

    Yes, I can do things like that to save money, but the more significant things, such as growing enough food to be self sufficient I can’t do as that requires land I just do not have (and cannot afford.)

    Once you are self sufficient, it is very cheap to live, but it costs a lot of money to get to that stage.

  20.  Perhaps, but I watch mostly history and infotainment shows, and almost none of the other trash you mean when you talk about turning off the television. I also have a tvo and record most of my shows so I can fast forward through commercials. Television itself isn’t evil, it’s what you choose to watch, and I choose to watch shows that are healthy for the mind. And I still don’t know what you mean by consumption. You can make small changes about the amount of water, energy and wast you produce, but if you have half a brain in your head you don’t go out and buy every little thing you see.

  21.  I did not mean trash shows only.  I meant *all* TV, including the shows that you say are healthy for the mind.  It’s not the content of any particular show that I object to, it’s the trance-inducing effects of the pacing, the rhythms of light and sound and their impact on the nervous system.  They increase suggestibility and they are addictive.  Like many an addiction, the addict thinks he can stop anytime, even though he can’t.  —   And by not consuming much, I mean not buying anything at all — not using any more money at all — beyond the bare minimum needed to survive and do the work one is called to do in the world.

  22.  in response to your comment about buying the bare minimum, it reminds me of the south park episode where the whole town adopts a standard of living like that in ancient galilee when the recession hits them. The logical conclusion to your belief is that we all go back to living like the third world or ancient times. That is just as extreme as the over consumption we are engaged in and that is not a viable option. There is a middle path where we can have our technology and leisure and still be in harmony with the earth. If we do it right, we can regenerate most of the damage we have done. And your views on the hypnotic power of television are a bit extreme.  

  23. I do think you’re partly right…
    I also think that living in a way that’s more conscious of the environment is, in the end, more of a community thing. And as things are now, many communities have become so big that the only way to deal with (for example) the food-question is mass production. At least that’s what I think – this can’t be solved on an individual basis. But for now, if everyone takes baby steps, it might hopefully grow into something bigger 🙂

  24.  I agree, this is an issue that is bigger than the individual.

    I also agree that communities have grown over-large. Can they even be called communities any more?

    I live in England and, across the border, in Wales (an in joke, there), there are some low impact communities getting off the ground. However, they are estimating that each household requires about ten acres of land to get close to being self sufficient. We simply do not have that much usable space for everyone to do that.