Many of us just turn off when confronted by looming predicaments, and why not? What in the world can we do? Quite a lot, says Carolyn Baker. Not to save civilization, but to prepare, in our hearts and minds, for its possible or impending decline.
Back when the northern hemisphere was living with the habit of nuclear threat, it seemed counter-intuitive to me that, as Joanna Macy advised, the expression of grief could lead to social action. Our predicament then justified grieving, but wouldn't the release of those caged feelings lead to sadness, melancholia, paralyzing depression?
My inner skeptic was wrong. In 1982 Macy gave us "Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age" (published by New Society, which deserves a prize for what it's brought to our attention over the decades). In this book and in workshops, Macy showed that becoming vividly aware of the danger and allowing our feelings into personal consciousness and social awareness did liberate energy for action.
The obverse of this truth is all around us as a fear of grieving and an urgency to return to business as usual: climate change is said to be a "hoax"; worry about the peak (or plateau) of oil production, a fantasy.
One of the best current exemplars of the courage to see what's happening is Carolyn Baker, who offers a "daily news digest" on the Internet, writes books, and leads workshops on how to prepare for the collapse of civilization. In her latest book, "Navigating the Coming Chaos: A Handbook for Inner Transition," she doesn't argue whether collapse has begun. Assuming that it has, how shall we live? She regards a collapse more as a potential liberation than as a disaster.
The news she brings in her daily digest includes evidence of big trouble and ideas for outer preparation, but her recent books are about readying our thoughts and feelings for a transition from familiar supplies, jobs and social roles.
Leave aside climate change: If the price of Brent crude oil continues to rise (it's now around $100), many of our current uses will be priced out. It's astonishing how much of our modern civilization depends on oil, not only for vehicles and factory agriculture, but also for manufacturing. Baker is concerned about the emotional reaction to finding that much we take for granted won't work any longer. Do we have the skills, or organization, to live any other way?
A decline would obviously affect productivity; it also can alter relationships. If many of us are already taking anti-depressants in not-so-bad times, what happens if things stop working?
In Baker's view we are like Wile E. Coyote who has run off a cliff, but stays up as long as he keeps his legs churning. During that long moment, before he looks down and falls, everything seems okay: a little frantic but still OK.
One doesn't have to feel sanguine about the possibility of building a better life under conditions of collapse in order to ask, with Baker, how could we work together to develop something better than we have? Whether a collapse proceeds in awkward steps or is sudden (as for Mr. Coyote), there's a case for getting ready, not as a survivalist but as a convivialist who, with others, has grieved what is being lost and developed skills for the new life.
Here Baker is an astonishingly good guide, brave in broaching this unwelcome subject in "Sacred Demise" (the best apparent oxymoron of 2009) and generous in further outlining a healthy response in the new book.
With her experience as a psychotherapist, Baker brings honesty wrapped in empathy; and as a former college history teacher, a broad perspective that includes the bouillon-cube concentration of great poetry. My meditation teacher used to hold a New Year's Eve party to which we'd all bring poems to share, and many of Baker's choices seem as familiar as old friends: Hafiz, Mary Oliver, Rilke, Rumi, Yeats. Her new book also introduced me to a spectacular poem by Alla Bozarth-Campbell.
As readers on the Internet may know, several talented writers highlight signs of a decline. Others offer advice for outer preparation (investments, off-the-grid energy, food storage, self-defense, that sort of thing). Baker raises the even more daunting question of what happens to our psyche and morale when things stop working and we have to make big adjustments, as big as exiles make. In case of decline, we may not need a new language, but in the world that Baker imagines we would need new sources of essential supplies, new skills, new ways of relating, new types of community, a new sense of the self.
Baker uses the word "spiritual," which may arouse the suspicion of readers who have set aside religious practice and, in some cases, any idea of a divine being. She refers, in the first instance, to the mysterious, powerful aspect of life that is governed by something other than the rationality of the prefrontal cortex.
For whatever reason, Baker can look in the face of the monster in contrast to the masses who, she says, have become "so identified with their possessions, investments, jobs, houses, and roles that losing them will feel catastrophic and perhaps psychologically unbearable." If this identification falters, will people gather around leaders and groups that provide satisfactions beyond the material? As the last century has shown, these groups can go terribly wrong, Baker wants time for people to feel their way into a new culture while avoiding the terrible scenario of denial followed by sudden panic and the search for a scapegoat.
Like Bill Kauth and Zoe Alowan in their book, "We Need Each Other," Baker calls not for isolation in bunkers but for a new experience of local community, new reasons for living other than the big box store and the big screen TV. What she is trying to encourage is the social invention of a new way of living.
Decline? It simply makes this invention necessary.