John Michael Greer Interview:

Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead

In this Banyen interview John Michael Greer, author of over thirty books, including his new book Dark Age America, argues that we are now seeing the signs of an impending decline and collapse of industrial civilization and culture. He paints a vivid and dark picture of the road ahead...

Banyen: In your new book Dark Age America: Climate Change, Culture Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead you argue that industrial civilization is heading into a dark age. How do you define a dark age? What are the defining characteristics of a dark age, as observed throughout history?

John Michael Greer: Dark ages are the normal aftermath when a civilization has finished its life cycle. Without a civilization beforehand, you don’t get a dark age, so that provides a very basic definition—a dark age is the era that follows the decline and fall of a civilization. That said, the definition can be drawn much more precisely, because dark ages are all very similar to one another, even when the civilizations that precede them are very different.

In dark ages, politics and economics are both dramatically relocalized—nations break apart into patchworks of little microstates, and most goods and services are consumed within a few miles of the place they’re produced. Since there’s no longer an overarching state to impose peace at swordpoint (or gunpoint), warfare and less organized forms of violence are both much more common than in a civilization. The income distribution curve flattens out—a dark age warlord may be richer than the peasants he rules, but the gap’s nothing like as drastic as it is between the rulers and the ordinary people of the previous civilization. The knowledge base declines sharply, and technology becomes simpler because the resources to support a complex technology simply don’t exist any more. Cities are abandoned, and population figures bottom out at a small fraction of the predecline peak. That’s a dark age.

One other thing to keep in mind about dark ages is that they don’t arrive overnight. It’s a long ragged road from the peak of a civilization to the dark age that follows it. One consequence of that fact is that a civilization can be tobogganing downhill at a fair pace, passing one familiar landmark after another on its way to a dark age, without anyone quite noticing what’s happening.

Banyen: What are the present-day indicators that we are heading into such an era?

John Michael Greer: Arnold Toynbee, whose research into the cycles of history remains one of the best guides we’ve got to the way civilizations fall and dark ages happen, showed that what kills a civilization is a split between its leadership and the rest of the population. In a growing civilization, the leaders form what he calls a “creative minority” which earns the respect of the people it leads, because it responds to problems by coming up with solutions that work. As a civilization matures, though, the creative minority stops innovating, and starts insisting that the solutions it prefers have to be applied over and over again even when they don’t work.

That’s when the creative minority becomes what Toynbee calls a “dominant minority,” which has lost the ability to inspire and settles for the power to manipulate. Dominant minorities fossilize from the head downward; they’ve got their favorite policies, their loudly proclaimed values, and plenty of tame intellectuals to tell them that of course everything is fine; meanwhile the costs pile up and the problems spin out of control. The rest of the population? Their share of the civilization’s benefits gets smaller all the time, while all the costs are loaded on their backs; they lose faith in the system, and in the values it claims to serve; they rebel in any way they can; and as crisis lands on top of crisis and the civilization begins to crack, they shrug and let it fall.

Does any of this sound familiar? It ought to. The industrial world is ruled by a dominant minority that keeps on pursuing policies that simply don’t work—think of the way that free trade agreements, which are theoretically supposed to bring prosperity, reliably drive down wages and push people into poverty—and yet the only response anyone’s willing to consider is more of the same. Tame intellectuals are doing their usual job of insisting that everything is just fine, while the wheels fall off the rusting hulk of the industrial world, and those who don’t live inside the airtight bubble inhabited by the privileged 20% or so of the population get their faces slammed into the gravel for decades on end.

When I was a kid, back in the 1960s, a family in the US with one working class income could afford a place to live, a car, three meals a day, and all the other necessities of life, with some left over. Nowadays, a family in the US with one working class income is probably living on the street. The fact that nobody’s willing to talk about that appalling shift is one of many signs that Toynbee’s scenario is well under way here and now.

Banyen: Is it fair to say that there is a widespread unwillingness within our culture to look seriously at the possibility of an impending decline? What are the main arguments (or dominant cultural narratives) against your theory that you have encountered?

John Michael Greer
: “Widespread unwillingness” is a spectacular understatement. The idea of decline is taboo in our culture, and people will go to the most remarkable extremes to avoid thinking about it. They’re perfectly willing to think about sudden apocalyptic collapse, and in fact our culture has an almost pornographic interest in such things—movies that portray the end of the world in ghoulish detail routinely make big bucks. Turn the conversation toward the way civilizations actually die, though, and you’ll get nervous looks and a quick change of subject.

One of the most important forces behind that taboo is our modern faith in progress. For all practical purposes, that’s the established religion of the modern world. Most people these days believe devoutly that progress is as almighty as it is benevolent, that it will surely save us all from everything bad, and so on through a catalog of nearly theological hopes; try to tell them that progress is subject to the law of diminishing returns, and you might as well be trying to tell a medieval peasant that God and the saints and angels aren’t up in Heaven any more.

Most of us have noticed by now that when a product’s marked “New and Improved,” it may be new but it’s not improved. Most of us know that “upgrade” is a code word meaning fewer benefits and more bugs, and the products on sale each year are shoddier and less satisying than they were the year before. Next to nobody, though, is willing to see the larger pattern, notice the steady erosion in quality of life and standards of living, and grasp that even though we’re still getting new technological toys from time to time, our society has passed from progress to regress. That’s a taboo idea, and most people won’t touch it.

Banyen: Do you see any ray of hope? Are there positive steps we can take?

John Michael Greer: That depends on what you mean by hope. If you want a way to keep our civilization going forever, you’re out of luck. Civilizations, like people, have life cycles; they are born, they mature, they get old and then they die. Ours is showing all the usual signs of approaching mortality, and so sooner or later its number is going to come up.

That said, it doesn’t have to die right away. There are definitely things that could be done to give industrial civilization a spry old age, though it has to be said that very few people, and no politicians at all, have shown the least interest in doing them. It’s also worth noting that the decline and fall of a civilization isn’t a fast process—it normally takes one to three hundred years—and that gives its inhabitants plenty of time to live their lives and contribute something to the future, if they choose to do so.

The choices we make now, in fact, can have a major impact on the depth and duration of the dark age our descendants will live through. We can ignore that, or we can take it seriously and ask ourselves, “what impact will this choice of mine have on the future?” That question can lead in many different directions; I’ve tried to talk about some of them in my book—but yes, there’s a lot that can be done, for the present and for the future, and if people stop trying to insist that the decline and fall of our civilization can’t happen, it’ll be easier to get on with the work that has to be done.


John Michael Greer is a historian of ideas and one of the most influential authors exploring the future of industrial society. He writes the widely cited weekly blog "The Archdruid Report" and has published more than thirty books on ecology, history, and nature spirituality. His involvement in sustainability issues dates back to the early 1980s, when he was active in the Appropriate Technology movement and became certified as a Master Conserver. He is the author of numerous titles, including The Long Descent, The Ecotechnic Future, The Wealth of Nature, and After Progress. John Michale Greer also serves as Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America. He lives in Cumberland, MD, an old mill town in the Appalachians, with his wife Sara. 

Interview © November 25, 2016 Banyen Books & Sound