The Conversation We Need to Have

 John Michael Greer

We’ve all experienced it: the kind of conversation everyone knows has to happen sooner or later, and nobody wants to have to face. Casual talk edges around it, jokes fail to get a laugh because they brush too close to it, silences open up because there’s no way to keep talking without crossing that line and facing it openly. Then, finally, somebody draws in a deep breath and says the thing that has to be said; chairs get pulled closer around into a circle, and a sense of relief cuts through the discomfort as the conversation begins at last.

That’s the kind of conversation we need to have now, and the subject is the end of industrial society.

Our entire society has been edging around that conversation uncomfortably for decades now. There’s been plenty of talk about the mismatch between popular fantasies of perpetual growth and the hard limits of a finite planet, to be sure, but nearly all of that talk has treated the mismatch as a problem that can be solved by some gimmick without giving up either the extravagant lifestyles we’re used to, on the one hand, or the hope of a decent life for our descendants on the other. Year after year, we’ve heard the same weary chatter about technological breakthroughs, great social movements, transformations in consciousness, and the rest of it; year after year, we’ve all heard the equal and opposite chatter about the overnight catastrophes that will relieve us of responsibility for the future our own choices are creating, for us and for our grandchildren’s grandchildren; and too many people manage not to notice that neither the breakthroughs nor the catastrophes ever get around to happening, while the jaws of our predicament close more and more tightly around us.

Off beyond the daydreams of progress and apocalypse stands the shape of the future that always comes to civilizations that overshoot their resource base—a shape that’s called decline. Mention that in most circles these days, and you’ll get the nervous silence or the too-loud rebuttal that tells you that you’ve strayed across the line and mentioned the theme of the conversation everybody’s trying to avoid. The decline of industrial society is a reality we are already facing; as real incomes shrink, quality-of-life indexes stumble downhill, and high-end technological projects such as the space program wind down. As resources keep on depleting and wastes build up, in turn, the decline is accelerating, and it’s a safe bet at this point that much of what counts as an ordinary life in today’s industrial nations will go away forever in the decades ahead of us. The time to prevent that was thirty years ago, and we didn’t. It really is as simple as that.

Thus it’s time to stop pretending that the future we’ve spent so much time making for ourselves can be made to go away. It’s time to get past the gaudy technologies that nobody’s gotten around to building, the idealized energy sources that don’t happen to work in the real world, the would-be mass movements that attract the usual handful of activists and nobody else, and all the rest of it. It’s time to talk instead about the things that actually matter in the age of limits that’s coming on the heels of the age of excess now ending: what can be saved, what must be let go, and how individuals, families, and communities can weather the troubled years ahead.

That sort of talk isn't well suited to the comfortable distance provided by electronic media or the yawning gap between the speaker's lectern and the rows of chairs for the audience. A good part of it needs to take place in person, face to face with old friends, new friends, and people you might never have considered worth including in the discussion, but whose points of view can teach you something you need to know. It requires a willingness to use frank words about hard realities -- overshoot, decline, collapse -- without discarding the compassion that reminds us of what these realities will mean for the people caught up in them. That's the conversation that needs to happen now, as the age of limits begins, and it's the conversation a number of us hope to launch and to foster at the Age of Limits conference this Memorial Day weekend.

If that’s a conversation you’re ready to face, pull up a chair and join in. We have a lot to talk about.

—John Michael Greer

The Age of Limits
Conversations on the Collapse of The Global Industrial Model
Friday May 25th thru Monday May 28th, 2012