If Katherine Graham is watching from the other side of the veil, she must be rending her garments over what’s happened to the Washington Post, for the integrity of which she once stood up to the threat of the most powerful man in the world who wished that she would “get her tit caught in a big fat wringer.” One of the Post’s few remaining lights is the Capital Weather Gang. This week, they’ve been writing, as my brilliant friend E called to my attention, about how truly intense global climate change was this past year. And everything they say is true, but all that I need to do is to step outside into my little cottage garden and see plants sprouting that “shouldn’t” sprout for another 75 days to know that, well, as Ms. Gale remarked, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Our planet is changing and we’ll all have to change along with her.
Responding to a question from her step-daughter about what would happen if our government were to “collapse,” Alison Leigh Lilly said:
“So, if the government ever collapsed, your job would be to be a good person, to have hope and work hard and do your best to help make the world a better place. To love others and believe the best of people and do what you can to make your community safe and happy, to support and help those who are vulnerable and strive to always be kind, compassionate and fair. All right? That’s your job now, and that will always be your job, whether or not there’s a government. It might get a little harder, or it might get easier. But the really basic truths of life don’t change.”
I don’t think you can explain it any more succinctly than that. (Must be the Druidic training.)
Ms. Lilly’s little girl has reason for concern. (Although I doubt that she’ll live to see the complete collapse of an entity known as the United States government. After all, Charlemagne was still calling himself the Holy Roman Emperor some nearly 400 years after the decline of the Roman empire. What she (and my G/Son) are likely to see is some form of government quite different from what we see today, but one that insists that it’s the same American democracy created by Jefferson and Adams. It may be worse. It may (I hope) be better. But it’s likely going to insist on a provenance that it may not entirely deserve.) We live, in the words of the ancient Chinese curse, in interesting times.
Interesting times are liminal times. As a devotee of Hecate, I have an affinity for liminal times, liminal spaces, the condition of liminality. Hecate, in my humble experience, doesn’t create magic or change. Instead, what She does is to show up at liminal times and in liminal spaces. When humbly and genuinely invoked, She can dance liminality into being. And it is liminality that creates the conditions in which change (provoked by magic, or by hard work, or by luck, or by love) can occur. She forks the road so that the two roads diverge in a wood and one can take the road less traveled by, and that makes all of the difference. (Actually, She’s a bit more complex than even that poet of complexity, Frost, could imagine. Hecate Trivia, Hecate of the Three Roads, generally creates a crossroads with (at least) a third road that would have given poor Mr. Frost even more pause. Because that’s how liminality works. It’s never either/or. It’s either/or/and/and/and.)
Some time ago, John Michael Greer, another Druid, wrote a piece that’s greatly influenced my thinking about America’s truly frightening (at least until Wisconsin and Occupy) response to the liminal times in which we live. He said:
That possibility [of a soft landing for our culture, as described by Lovelock] was foreclosed when the leaders of the major industrial nations embraced short term politics instead of meaningful planning in the years right after 1980. At this point, the resources that might have powered a transition to sustainability have been burnt [in order] to fuel one last orgy of conspicuous consumption, and the consequences of that final spree, combined with epic economic mismanagement and a good solid helping of chicanery and outright fraud, have tipped the industrial nations of the world over into what promises to be a long and difficult period of economic malfunction.
When familiar myths fail and life gets difficult, in turn, the results rather too often include a form of collective flight into fantasy well known to sociologists and students of history. Think of cargo cults, Ghost Dancers, Americans waiting in a suburban Chicago backyard to be taken off the planet by the Space Brothers, and every other example you recall of people responding to a difficult situation by a leap of faith to a farther shore that didn’t happen to be there. Now think about it again, remembering that this time the motivating factors may well include the symbols and slogans and passionate hopes that matter most to you.
The standard jargon for phenomena of this kind is revitalization movements. They happen when a society is hit by repeated troubles that cut straight to the core of its identity and values. In such times, when existing institutions fail and the collective foundations of meaning crack, there’s a large demand for some new vision of destiny that will make sense of the troubles and offer a way past them to some brighter future. The economics of popular belief being what they are, that demand very quickly finds an ample supply.
Revitalization movements, like new cars, come with standard features and a range of optional gewgaws that can be added on to suit the tastes of the buyer. The standard features include a thorough critique of the existing order of society, which is meant to show that the troubles have occurred because either the people who have suffered from them, or some other group that’s to blame for them, have misbehaved and are being punished; a vision of a Utopian future that will arrive right after the troubles if the right things are done; and a straightforward plan of action to make the transition from the troubles to the Utopian future. The problem is that the plan of action can’t actually deliver the goods; that’s what defines something as a revitalization movement rather than, say, an ordinary movement seeking social change. Revitalization movements emerge when all the practical options for dealing with a crisis are either unworkable or unthinkable.
The optional features range all over the map from the harmless to the horrific. A focus on purification, for example, is one common optional feature, but purification can mean a great many things. In the Native American revitalization movements of the twentieth century, for example, it usually meant abstaining from alcohol and other toxic products of white culture, and did a great deal to help First Nations communities begin to recover from the ghastly experiences of the previous century. In the European revitalization movements that sprang up in the wake of the Black Death, by contrast, it usually meant getting rid of Jews and other social outsiders who were blamed for spreading the plague, and helped lay the foundation for the witch hunting mania of the following centuries.
It seems uncomfortably likely to me that such movements could be set in motion by the emergence of peak oil as a publicly acknowledged crisis. Tendencies in that direction are already welded firmly in place in popular culture across the industrial world. The Sarah Palin supporters who turned “Drill, baby, drill” into their mantra du jour are engaging in incantation, to be sure, but there’s more to the slogan than a comfortable thoughtstopper; a great many of the people who mouth it believe with all their heart that 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. That plan of action can’t deliver the goods; they might as well be out there with the cargo cults, building mock airfields on isolated Pacific islands hoping to bring back the DC-3s full of K-rations and cheap trade goods that landed on a hundred archipelagoes during the Second World War. Still, that’s not something they are likely to grasp any time soon; mere reason has essentially no power against a nascent revitalization movement.
The shift from incantation to revitalization movement is under way on the other side of the political spectrum as well, though it hasn’t generally gotten as much traction yet – a reminder that in America, at least, the ideologies of the left these days tend to be favored by the still relatively privileged middle classes, while the working classes that favor ideologies of the right have gotten the short end of the stick for decades. Still, the tendencies are there. Watch the conversations on most reasonably active peak oil forums, and you’re very likely to see people insisting that all of us, or at least a chosen few, can make the transition to a brighter future if only we follow some plan of action they are eager to share. In those conversations, the seeds of the revitalization movements to come are putting out their first tentative shoots.
If those seeds sprout and blossom, keeping a clear mind amid their heady perfume will be a more challenging task than I suspect most of my readers realize. What sets revitalization movements apart from the more incantatory activities of the true believers in progress or apocalypse is that revitalization movements actually buckle down and do something, and tolerably often, at least some of the things they do are worth doing. Hope is an intoxicating drug; hope blended with opportunities for apparently constructive action is an even stronger one; add the emotional lure of belonging, the promise of mutual support and encouragement, and the rush that comes from dropping ordinary concerns for the single-minded pursuit of a shared ideal, and you’ve got an addictive high that’s hard to resist and harder to quit. That’s why revitalization movements so often gather large crowds, and proceed to follow out the consequences of their internal logic to its furthest extreme, no matter how catastrophic the consequences might be.
In the present case, they could be catastrophic indeed. I think most people know in theory about the destination of the road paved with good intentions, but revitalization movements that go awry have a bad habit of putting that theory into practice. Next week, I’ll explore those uncomfortable possibilities in more detail, and in the process, show how the magical thinking that underlies revitalization movements could be put to use in much more constructive ways.
For the moment, though, I want to pass on the counterspell against incantatory thinking that I mentioned at the conclusion of last week’s post. Like the magic spells in fairy tales, it comes with a taboo that limits what you can do with it. The taboo is this: you can use it to guard yourself from incantations, if you think about it and understand it, and you can pass it on to someone else who’s ready to receive and understand it. If you give it to someone who’s not willing to accept it, though, it will cause exactly the flight into incantation and fantasy it’s meant to prevent. Here it is:
There is no brighter future ahead.
Keep it secret; keep it safe. We’ll talk more next week.
And, while I agree with Greer that the “good times” fueled by carbon that we couldn’t imagine expiring, aren’t coming back, I also believe, along with Ms. Lilly, that perhaps not so much will change. With or without regular electricity, with or without predictable planting cycles, with or without a central government, our job as Witches would still be:
to be a good person, to have hope and work hard and do your best to help make the world a better place. To love others and believe the best of people and do what you can to make your community safe and happy, to support and help those who are vulnerable and strive to always be kind, compassionate and fair. All right? That’s your job now, and that will always be your job, whether or not there’s a government. It might get a little harder, or it might get easier. But the really basic truths of life don’t change.”
A Witch’s job is to turn the Wheel. And round and round the Wheel must turn.
Picture found here.