(Taken from the book After Progress by John Michael Greer)
It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact these tectonic shifts will have on contemporary culture. Ideas, institutions and ways of life forged in an era of prolonged economic contraction and environmental blowback. As they collapse, other ideas, institutions and ways of life will have to be found and deployed, and that work of rebuilding will have to be done amid the stresses and unpredictable impacts of a troubled time. It’s a harrowing task and the one source of reassurance I know is that the other human societies, in other ages, have managed the same thing within the hard limits of the resources, opportunities and wisdom available to them at the time.
Seen from another perspective, however — the perspective of the emerging religious sensibility — the time ahead of us takes on a different meaning. At the heart of the older sensibility that’s now guttering out around us was a daring, if not necessarily wise, attempt to break free of the natural world entirely so that humanity could launch itself beyond all limitations and break through into eternity and infinity. The religions, the intellectual movements and ultimately the superlative technological achievements of Western civilization were all pressed into service in making that attempt.
In a certain very limited sense, that effort succeeded. A modest number of human beings were tossed briefly outside the atmosphere and circled around our planet for a while before returning home, while a handful went further still, to stand on the surface of the Moon or orbit through the void surrounding it. Their voyages may well provide our descendants with a powerful symbol of the subtler but equally real journey of billions of people in the world’s industrial societies, who managed to talk themselves, for a while, into believing that they were outside nature, superior to it, waiting only for some final dramatic change — spiritual, social, technological, or some blending of the three — to bring ordinary existence to a close forever.
In a deeper sense, though, the grand attempt to transcend the human condition forever has been a resounding flop and its failure has brought harsh consequences to the biosphere that supports us and to our own humanity. The task before us at this point in the turning of time’s wheel, though, is prefigured by those short journeys outside the atmosphere that simultaneously fulfilled and betrayed the dream of the space age, that strange cultural phenomenon that briefly loaded hopes of transcendence onto a collection of rocketry. Once the astronauts had finished gathering rocks, taking photos and pursuing their other chores on the Moon, the remainder of their journey beckoned: not a leap further outward through some bleaker void to some yet more desolate destination, but the simple task of returning to the living planet they had so briefly left behind.
That same task awaits the people of the world’s industrial nations today. We have taken the old quest to break free from nature and the human condition very nearly as far as our considerable technological powers would permit, and in the process, created landscapes — spiritual, cultural and in some places physical as well — very nearly as bleak as the Moon’s silent and airless wastes. Whether that was a good idea or a bad one, a choice or a necessity, a triumph or a terrible failure, is ultimately less relevant than the fact that the effort has run its course.
A different quest calls us now, murmuring through the emerging religious sensibility of our age, rising stark before us in the cold gray dawn of a world after progress: to return to the living Earth and come to know it again as the whole of which each of us is a part. After all our wanderings, it is time to come home.