The Religious Implications of Peak Oil
For those who do not know what Peak Oil is, a quick summary:
Peak Oil is a term that means that we have hit the peak of oil production which can meet global demand for it. Simply put, a peak occurs when demand outstrips production. There are plenty of online resources, some of which are here: The Oil Drum and Peak Oil, among a great many others. For a great, ongoing discussion of the implication of Peak Oil and his own exploration of the religious implications of Peak Oil, among a great many other topics, Archdruid John Michael Greer’s The Archdruid Report is one of the best I have seen.
Rather than discuss the science and charts and such, since I have, compared to others, a limited layman’s understanding of Peak Oil, I wanted to dive right into what Peak Oil can mean for us as Pagans.
What are the religious implications of Peak Oil?
Gebo is Foremost
Gebo means gift for a gift, and for a long time the West has been able to, by and large, ignore its share of Gebo to nature and the poor.
If Western society has a chief ill it is that it seeks something for nothing. Capitalism’s strength is predicated upon infinite exponential growth when, realistically speaking, this is not possible. There are hard limits to growth, whether it is the forest providing timber, the mine providing gold, or the computer number-crunching. All things have their limit, and without respect to that, disaster is inevitable because all future hopes and plans hinge on a single method of interacting with the world. So, my understanding is that the first implication of Peak Oil is that Gebo must come before all else.
Naudhiz is the Measure of All Things
Naudhiz translates to need or distress. In this, I am primarily thinking of need, and the maxim “What does it do? How well does it do it?” becoming the measure by which all things will be measured. Do I need this electronic device? Can I break it down or build it up into something more useful? Will this get in the way of me being productive? If it breaks down, what can I do with it? Can I repair it? Do I need it or a replacement if I cannot repair it?
Naudhiz is the rubbing together of two sticks to make fire. It is the necessary work needing to be done to survive, if not begin to thrive. It is the laundry getting done, the garden planted, the animals fed, etc. Whatever work is needing to be done so things progress. Getting busted down this hard to basics is not something a lot of people in America are used to, though with half of America officially in poverty that is quickly changing. What can I truly live without? What am I willing to do to make it? Hard questions that more are asking, and many more yet need to ask. Once we know Gebo it is easier to measure what must be done. It is far better to voluntarily start the process of asking these questions when you may have abundance than to wait until you must get answers on the fly. Naudhiz is a good measure to budget by once Gebo is known. In knowing the limits of what is asked, and what you can deliver via Gebo, you can best know what you need, and from there, determine how to meet that need in exploring Naudhiz.
While this is part of Gebo it also deserves direct mention. Right relationship is the idea that there is a way we should interact with and within the world. It means not dumping chemicals on your lawn just so it looks green. It means not ripping up every bit of habitat around us for more parking structures or development space for single-story, large, wasteful, polluting businesses. Right relationship implies that we not only understand the aforementioned limits of our society, its reach, or the environmental impact we have, but respecting that limits and staying well within them. It means remediation of wild places and a radically different way of life. In respecting that we have stretched much of our environment to its breaking point, local, as well as State and national ways of doing things will need to change. Each person’s situation will be different, but one way we can reduce rampant consumption and its many branching effects is conservation. Conserve electricity, water, food, everything your life depends on that you need can, past a certain point, be conserved. Even if you yourself do not garden, conserving food where possible and composting it where it is not, or handing it to a neighbor or friend, will make much better use of food and landfill space.
More than anything else we need to reduce our rampant consumption here in the West, especially America. We consume 25% of the world’s resources with only 5% of its overall population. This equation needs to change if we are to live in right relationship with the world around us.
Looking to Our Ancestors
Modern society provides very little actual grounding for living. Unless you are taking classes in school with practical application, such as a Home Economics course, or if you are in a homeschooling situation where people are preparing you for the real world, modern society has more or less thrown up its collective hands in teaching or instilling much in terms of practical lessons. Most Americans do not know how to grow food, much less how to make fire. Repairing things is almost entirely a lost art; rather, we are encouraged to buy the new thing. Repair shops used to be a nationwide phenomena. If something broke, you fixed it. Without throwing on rosy-colored glasses or romanticizing the past, either recent Americana or further back, there were a good number of practical skills a person, or someone close to you, might know that make sense for us to retain into a world beyond Peak Oil.
What does this have to do with Ancestors? Everything. Our Ancestors at some point or another had to live off the land. The occupation for 90% of Americans, at one point, was farming. In a post Peak Oil time, while we may not get back to that 90%, we are going to need to devote more of our energy to it. This will mean regaining skills we have not used, or wholesale reskilling ourselves to the task at hand. My grandfather collects old farm tools. Seeing these I can see the Ancestors’ hands on them, and how these tools are ancestors themselves to the electrical and gas-powered machines we have today. Far better we learn to use these older machines, and start demand for them now, than having to completely reinvent the wheel and/or play catch-up.
This can be a form of working with, if not worshiping our Ancestors in a very direct way. Everyone has Ancestors who were farmers. They tilled the soil, they knew how hard it can be to grow things. Does everything they did work for us? No, certainly not. My German Ancestors worked different soil, but many of the lessons translate well. The point is, is that by and large farming itself has not grown by leaps and bounds in terms of its basic ingredients or complexity. It is merely the scale that has become so huge, so complex. Our Ancestors hold many of the keys to future prosperity, whether we find that in how we raise our crops, our houses, or our communities. Will everything our Ancestors did be right for our age? No, but the collective wisdom They hold is worth at the least considering, if not employing in our lives.
Using a hand-cranked masher, I made pear sauce last year and sealed them in mason jars. No sugar added, just three large, sealed mason jars full of pears that will keep for a good long while. This is something my parents and grandparents have done most of their lives, something that was not passed down to me until I demanded to be taught it. Will it keep me alive through a harsh winter? Well, no, not just on canned pears, but it, and similar skills will, even if the post Peak Oil future is a generation or so down the road, save me a lot of money. Think of how much we spend on canned goods, frozen goods. Growing it yourself is a savings of a large chunk of money, especially if you can do it well. Money does grow on trees because food is real wealth you can put in your mouth.
What does this have to do with religion? Religion is a framework through which we understand our place in the Worlds. Industriousness, what we do with ourselves on a regular basis, is an important part of that. We have, in our Pagan traditions, Gods of the hearth, the home, and certain crafts. When I clean I dedicate that work to Frigga and Frau Holle. When I till the Earth or plant, I dedicate that Work to Jörð, Freyr, and Gerda, depending on where I am planting and what I am planting. I speak with the landvaettir as well as Jörð, Freyr, and Gerda prior to planting, when setting up the space, when working within the space, and when harvesting. I hail Nidhogg and Hel when I take out the compost.
The point of a religious life is that the Work of that life does not stop at the temple, church, or shrine. It is enlivened by the Work done in the temple, church, or shrine, and extends into every area in which one lives and breathes and works. The world is full of holiness if we would recognize it. So when you put yourself to work, whether at a computer, a field, someone’s home, or the living room, it is a time that the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits can be honored, praised, and involved in your life. In this way, I see Pagan religion not so much practiced as it is lived, and industriousness is one key way in which we can connect to the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.
I mentioned something in the last section that I want to dig into a bit more: Money does grow on trees because food is real wealth you can put in your mouth. Most ancient societies judged the wealth of a person by how much stuff they had. In the Germanic and Norse case, it was cattle and grains. They, rather than currency, were markers of wealth because if you had lots of cows and/or grain you had lots of land, people to work that land, raise those animals, etc. Food and land equaled wealth. What is often remarked upon as wealth, calculated in numbers that most human minds reel at fathoming, is basically numbers in a computer. I cannot eat the ones and zeroes any more than I can the paper they are now represented by. It is not what I would call ‘real’ wealth.
Peak Oil destroys the concept of fiat currency, which is the economic regime we currently live under in most of the world, because the US dollar is predicated on growth and is not backed by anything. It is essentially a thoughtform which we have agreed upon, saying that ‘the full faith and credit of the US Federal Reserve is so good it can be used to pay debts’. It is, in essence, a massive act of faith that keeps the economy chugging along, and all it would take is something like Peak Oil, or people switching en masse over to the Euro to destroy a good deal of its so-called wealth.
Cows, meanwhile, do not lose inherent value because the dollar tanks, the Euro rises, or the whole global economic system comes crashing around our heads. The cow will still eat grass, chew cud, produce milk, and be a viable meat source. The grain in the field will still grow, be able to be produced into bread and countless other things, regardless of how commodities pricing is. Both still have inherent value not propped up by a largely fabricated economic system. When a fiat currency’s users no longer have faith in it the currency has no value period, and it never had inherent value, beyond perhaps being able to be smelted in the case of coins, or burned in the case of fiber-based paper currency. The ones and zeroes in a machine have no lasting impact upon us or use for us when the system collapses; it does not produce more money, does not regenerate, and has no connection to real wealth once the glamour is broken. It is telling that the Germanic/Norse God Freyr is a God of agriculture and of wealth.
There are several warnings about wealth and greed in ancient Pagan religion, but using the Hávamál as an example, it is more concerned with wealth in terms of coins and gold, in other words currency wealth, in these warnings, and often reminds the reader/listener that this wealth is transitory at best, and fickle. Meanwhile true wealth stays with one long-term and is found in friendship and good company. It is that understanding of wealth that is key. To not only understanding what is more important in terms of material wealth, but what is true wealth, and what will truly help in the long term. One may stock food for some eventuality, but once that store is gone, what use is it if there is no one to lean on, no food to grow? You starve. As Freyr is the God of both agriculture and wealth, I see one of His lessons is that if one establishes a good relationship with the land they live on, one may truly be said to be wealthy.
So where is wealth to be found? In good friends, in hard work, and in doing well by others. In working with the land and living beings, and doing right by both. In other words, by living in Gebo and right relationship with others and the world around you, meeting you and your family’s/community’s/etc. needs, and in being industrious.
The religious implication of crafting could be an entire post on its own. The first Goddess that comes to my mind is Frigga, the spinner, the weaver, the homemaker, Who spins Wyrd. Wow. Just think about that for a moment: one of the Asynjur is the one who spins the primal stuff of potential into what was, what is, and what will will be. It is said She knows all Wyrd but will not speak of it. That is power. In a legend Her favored army beat Her husband’s army, Who is a renowned God of battle, cunning, and skill. Our Goddesses of crafting, of homemaking, and the hearth are neither to be underestimated, nor belittled. They are powerful, holy, and glorious in Their own rights.
We underestimate craftswomen and craftsmen to our own detriment. We buy inferior, polluting products from countries who allow their workers to burn when the factory is on fire. Our food comes to us out of season on the backs of millions of underpaid and exploited farmers from other countries while our own crops rot in the field because large-scale agriculture relies on illegal workers. Many of the arts that would produce these goods closer to home are becoming more and more scarce despite our wealth of able-bodied workers. If Peak Oil is to be navigated effectively crafting will need to come back into its own, and the way to make this transition easier and far less haphazard is to support it now, both in terms of the current generation and those coming up in it. This support needs to be as much from the ground up as possible, including spinners as well as clothing makers, those who harvest clay to those who shape with it.
In short, in supporting crafting the supply chain needs, as much as is possible, to be returned back to the local level and scaled to the local level’s needs to start with. Sure, we can grow bigger, perhaps this town has an excessive amount of sheep and supplies wool to its neighbors, and they have cows and supply butter, yogurt and milk to theirs. Still, Peak Oil’s biggest challenge is to stop consuming like there’s no tomorrow and rework our methods of producing back down to local, but scale-able design.
The religious implication here is that in supporting this from the ground up, and reworking our supply chain in such a way, even if our neighbors do not worship the Gods we do we can still bring our religious values in line, particularly in the belief that this world is holy, as is the work we do, and so can the things we support. In this case we instill that in our everyday life by supporting change, by building up our neighbors so we may all thrive. We make this change part of an unfolding of our religious values, especially suited to an age where acting in Gebo and right relationship are not just niceties but keys to survival.
Peak Oil as a Whole
Peak Oil is a direct challenge to many of the ideas that we as Americans have gotten used to: that we can spend our way to a better future, that conservation is no longer a needed thing, that consumption is growing the economy, that we can spend what we have like we will have it tomorrow, and that there can be growth without limits. It directly attacks American exceptionalism, hegemony, empire, and our place in the world. Peak Oil is our society hitting the limits on our ability to tap the resources we need for our modern lifestyle. Peak Oil’s coming does not mean we have to all go into a neo-primitive lifestyle, although that is, to my mind, a viable option for some. What it does mean is that Gebo, right relationship, meeting our needs on a consistent basis, looking to our Ancestors, supporting our crafters, and engaging in industriousness at all levels will be necessary.
To religion Peak Oil is a direct challenge: do your instructions, traditions, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, etc. aid the survival or hasten the destruction of human life and well-being, now and in the future? Do your religious views, institutions, etc. provide comfort, direction, purpose, and empowerment to living in a way that is geared towards LESS (Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation) while providing hope for the future? Do your religious leaders provide focal points for community building, or are they needlessly divisive and disruptive to cohabitation and cooperation in age where both are key to survival? Does religious instruction raise children equipped to handle the world as it is, or is it looking forever backward or forward at some mythic Golden Age, trapped in worlds to come that will not arrive?
There are many more questions, and they will be answered by each person as much as each priest, by each religious institution as by each religious community. Yet they are worth pondering, as surely as it is how we, as Pagans, as fellow citizens in this country, will navigate the near future.
I invite anyone who wants to engage in this dialogue to comment here, to reblog, and start more conversations on this topic.