Former psychotherapist, Carolyn Baker, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of history and psychology while managing her website, Speaking Truth To Power . She is the author of five books, including her latest, Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization's Collapse . Carolyn has also authored several articles and essays on issues of environmental and social justice, psychology of the consciousness, as well as emotional and spiritual wellbeing. She is currently on her way to Colorado to work with one of their Transition Towns, organizing around the issues of peak-oil, climate change, and the social repercussions of the former and latter.
In this interview she talks about the collapse of industrial civilization – what it may look like, reasons for its occurrence, the effects of collapse and, how to relocalize and create sustainable communities in the throes of collapse. Through the lenses of psychology, spiritualism, and history Carolyn explicates that collapse is a dynamic affair, not sudden, but a drawn out process of erosion that will test our subjective relations and our consciousness, while shaking off old paradigms, and what we can do to maintain a sense of peace, pragmatism, and community.
Frank Joseph Smecker: You maintain that the collapse of industrial civilization is occurring now ; can you define collapse? And explain why industrial civilization is eroding at its very foundations?
Carolyn Baker: First of all, I'm talking about a process that is slow – not like falling off of a cliff but more like rolling down a bumpy hill. Most of us know what collapse is beginning to look like. It begins to look like massive departures from organized religions alongside Catholic diocese child-sex scandals. It begins to look like rising unemployment and a growing gap between classes. Wouldn't you agree that an educational system that can only produce standardized children by forcing them to take standardized tests five hours a day, four days a week, is functioning in a state of abject disintegration? Or what about the health care system that is so broken and unequal? Collapse is primarily the demise of the chief institutions such as education, health care, political, financial –
FJS: Collapse can also be recognized on account of its effects upon the ecological balance of the planet such as a burgeoning endangered species list, climate change and melting glaciers – the desiccation of arctic permafrost, the acceleration of droughts and desertification… the list is damn long…
CB: Absolutely – everyday the endangerment or imminent extinction of a species, if not several, is announced. We are reminded of the melting polar ice caps, the plummeting of giant ice shelves into the sea; fires raging in places they seldom had in the past. Yes, the list is sadly long. Aside from the effects and appearance, collapse is mainly the demise of a paradigm of growth, expansion – of domination and control, of separateness. This paradigm is vanishing and it will have to be replaced. My work not only points this out, but is also a tool to educate about inclusion, local community-geared organization, and small-scale production versus pyramidal hierarchy – which clearly doesn't work. It's apparent that the large institutions don't work: federal and state governments are rapidly going bankrupt. Solutions will have to come from relocalized communities. In terms of energy, it's pretty clear now that we've passed ‘peak' regarding oil production. This is crucial because we've relied so long on cheap and abundant fossil fuels. No longer is production easy and cheap; we are now moving away from affordable hydrocarbon energy. And the truth is, the whole hierarchy-from-the-top-down approach is no longer working. The big secret (which is really no secret at all) is that the institutions themselves are collapsing and, you can't have a recovery without access to energy and you can't access energy without money – it's a catch twenty-two! We're printing more money to access more energy, which is becoming harder and more expensive to access and produce and, in turn, we are going further into debt thence more bankruptcy. We have come to the end of large bureaucratic government institutions.
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FJS: You assert that there is nothing government can do to stop collapse – that there is no large-scale political change that will mitigate collapse, not even major reformation like replacing capitalism with socialism will stop the dominant culture from destroying the planet and marching toward collapse. How so?
CB: Let's face it, a presidential candidate cannot even receive substantial votes, let alone be elected, unless he is solidly in the pocket of the corporate interests of the US – the same corporate interests that rely on unsustainable growth and exploitation of the natural world. Besides, no one candidate is remotely capable of executing a fundamental paradigm shift within the span of four to eight years. As for our ‘democratic' process, during the initial stages of the economic meltdown many players in Congress looked the other way – there may be no more than six people in congress I can say I absolutely trust; it truly is the fox guarding the chicken house! Anyway, as I stated earlier, collapse is occurring as a result of specific paradigms that have been held for centuries that are resulting in the destruction of the human and non-human realms. Merely replacing capitalism with socialism will not work. Changing systems is ineffectual not only because an opposite system is still a system but also, most importantly, only the political and economic structures are altered, while the fundamental paradigm – one of control and domination, remains intact. Father Thomas Berry wrote in The Dream Of The Earth , “both liberal capitalism and Marxist socialism committed themselves totally to the vision of industrial progress which more than any other single cause has brought about the disintegration that is taking place throughout the entire planet.”
FJS: Apparently, the collapse of industrial civilization is the inevitable outcome of a contrived system inherently intent on growing exponentially in a finite world with set – i.e. invariable – limits. Do you believe that the purpose of “limitless growth” is designated for the notion of progress, a philosophical idea that was latent in the “Christian notion of self-perfection for divine ends,” an end in which the future is static and “Heavenly?”
CB: Since the Enlightenment, it has all been about reaching a static age of perfection – which goes against all indigenous wisdom. The first thing that was done to the indigenous by Westerners after colonization was the taking away of indigenous rituals because they were seen as impediments to ‘progress.'
FJS: So the whole proselytizing thing can also be seen as a swapping of religions, so to speak – supplanting an indigenous worldview with a ‘civilized' worldview that worships production and progress?
CB: To call it a ‘swap' is an understatement. To shift indigenous religions with Christianity is a rape – a violation that has led us to where we are now. And if we don't stop to recognize this and don't understand why we are where we are, there is no chance of a new paradigm. I wrote a book a while back called U.S. History Uncensored: What Your High School Textbook Didn't Tell You . It's basically a history of the US from 1865 to now, and can be a useful read to know how we got from even there to here, and it is available at my website or at Amazon.
FJS: In your recent book, Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path Of Industrial Civilization's Collapse , you have written that “the more we honor and celebrate our inherent animal nature, the more likely we are to effortlessly honor our limits.” Would you agree that civilization's transgressions of natural limits is linked to the suppression of our inherent, intuitive animal instincts?
CB: Absolutely. Derrick Jensen wrote in Endgame, Volume I, that: “The needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of any economic system.” And that, “Any economic system that does not benefit the natural communities on which it is based is unsustainable, immoral, and really stupid.” We're the only species, that I'm aware of, that doesn't honor limits. One of the deeper layers explaining our disconnect from nature is our “fear and loathing of the body,” of our instinctual wildness and, our vulnerability to death. This all causes us to distance ourselves from the reality that we are indeed animals. And also, native peoples, as a result of their intimate connection with nature, are glaring reminders of our animal-ness. To be ‘civilized' is synonymous with being domesticated, restrained, and repressed, and if we are to participate in instinctual behavior, let's use sex as an example, we are encouraged to do it in a controlled, sanitized, or even surreptitious fashion. I think it's pretty important we all begin to realize that it isn't wild animals that are soiling their nests and desecrating their habitat, but rather humans. I'm sitting here right now looking out at beautiful rolling green hills. I often see deer grazing along the hillside, and you know what? They don't ever come to my house because they have limits! Animals live within the limits of their environment because their lives depend on doing so. In the new paradigm, other animals and creatures will be the elders; they will be the wise ones who will help us remember our animal origins and animal destiny. Animals already teach us surrender, acceptance, and limits. There's a great quote by Eckhart Tolle in which he states: “No other life-form on the planet knows negativity, only humans, just as no other life-form violates and poisons the earth that sustains it…Watch any plant or animal and let it teach you acceptance of what is, surrender to the Now. I have lived with several Zen masters – all of them cats.”
FJS: Why do you suppose so many people reject the truth, or at the very least, the notion of, collapse and refuse to ask these necessary questions?
CB: Collapse is terrifying; we're not going to bounce back. Besides, many people are still entrenched in the ‘Myth of America' – that anyone, or the US as a whole, can be triumphant. Plus, people who are hurting from bankruptcy, foreclosure, unemployment – it's hard for these folks to accept that this is permanent: it's not going away.
FJS: Decades ago, psychiatrist R.D. Laing developed three rules by which he believed a pathological family (one suffering from abuse, alcoholism, etc.) can keep its pathology hidden from even its own family members. Adherence to these three rules allows perpetrators, victims, and observers to maintain the fantasy that they are all one big, happy family. The rules are: Rule A: Don't [talk about the problems and abject conditions]; Rule A1: Rule A does not exist; Rule A2: Do not discuss the existence or nonexistence of Rules A, A1, and/or A2. These rules aren't exclusive to nuclear families but also apply to larger cultures, especially cultures that are violently abusive to its own people and the land, lest the people recognized the flaws of such abject behavior. Would you agree that these rules are adhered to within the dominant culture, heightening collective denial and silence in the wake of collapse?
CB: Exactly – without question. The American culture can be compared to one large dysfunctional family, and it can also be compared to an addiction model. By maintaining denial we enter a very dangerous realm. As Carl Jung emphasized, whatever we deny or pretend to ignore does not go away, but only becomes larger in its power and influence, not only within the psyche, but throughout our external world too. And anything we do to resist or postpone the collapse will only make it worse. In 2007, the Pentagon announced that it is conducting simulation exercises in specific US cities in preparation for possible chaotic scenarios resulting from climate change, a nuclear attack, pandemics, or natural disasters. Clearly, law enforcement and the military are anticipating the possibility of dealing with an unruly citizenry. The possibilities of martial law, suspension of the Constitution, and immediate imprisonment for dissenters or generally unruly individuals are daunting – it's no wonder we don't want to think about the reality of collapse and the full extent of its consequences. But again, whatever we deny or ignore only becomes a larger threat. If we don't attend to the reality of collapse that is happening now, we risk not only encountering it without a lack of pragmatic preparation, but we're very likely to deprive the deeper, eternal layers of ourselves, obviating any effective community building.
FJS: Would you agree that hope, righteousness, and ‘keeping a positive outlook' also keeps the truth at bay while galvanizing complacency?
CB: Ah yes, hopium .
(There's a brief pause as we both chuckle)
CB: The longer we dwell on false hopes – which I would define a false hope as an external hope: that something out there will fix this, that technology will save us, or that a newly elected president will bring change – the longer we persist in this the harder the collapse will be. Hope must come from within, from inside you, and really, I don't like to use the word ‘hope', I don't like it – I prefer ‘inspiration.' And let's be honest, calling someone ‘doomerish' or ‘keeping a positive attitude' that doesn't honestly address today's daunting conditions doesn't change the fact that we are witnessing the unprecedented extinction of 200 species per day; it won't reverse peak-oil or stop famine or resource wars. I believe that new solutions come from holding the dark reality alongside one's vision – what many indigenous called ‘holding the tension of opposites.' I say down with hope, up with holding the tension of opposites! As for righteousness, I wrote in Sacred Demise that a righteous attitude often leads to detachment from reality: it bypasses any emotional response one may have to the desperate situation we and all other life are in on this planet – it makes the state of the planet someone else's problem, not ‘ my ' problem. It implies that one is above emotions and doesn't want to soil his/her ‘sanitized' psyche with them. And as for the addiction to a ‘positive attitude,' well, upholding the latter in the face of the end of the world as we have known it is beyond irrational – it's a humancentric obsession, as if the only thing that matters as the world burns is to feel good about oneself. And to add to your previous mentioning of R.D. Laing's three rules for a pathological family – anyone who keeps a positive attitude in this culture – the culture of civilization that is killing the planet – killing all of the people and species we all love – that person is not only irrational and deeply afflicted with denial, but is exactly like a member of an abusive family system in which physical and sexual assault are occurring in the home on a daily basis, but that family member insists on ‘thinking good thoughts' and resents anyone and everyone who says what is so about the abusive system.
FJS: You also wrote in Sacred Demise that collapse can be seen as a metaphor for growth. For starters, what is the connection, if any, between the dominant culture's fear of death and the ubiquitous fear to confront the reality of collapse? And moreso, can you discuss how growth cannot be attained without requisite loss?
CB: The bottom line of confronting collapse is facing our own mortality. If we refuse to do this, collapse will be horrifying. We need to be more of a culture of adults then of children. We need to accept that there is an end – there is an end to this ‘party' we've been having for the last two hundred years or so, as there's an end to each and every one of our individual lives. An integral part of restoring life is the willingness to be present with death. Acknowledging this will help us weather the collapse. The indigenous have known for thousands of years that life is comprised of loss – their traditions, rituals, and ceremonies help deal with loss: they devote a great deal of time and energy into preparation for life's losses and, their traditions teach that loss is an enormous and necessary part of the human experience. Part of becoming a mature, initiated adult is to learn and grow from loss. We just can't grow without it, and, despite the pain, it is food for growth. A huge point in Sacred Demise is my view on the collapse process as comparable to the indigenous view of the cycle of life. First the child is born into life, then later on there is the puberty-initiation process – which is far greater than just a rite of passage – it is a brush with death, a connection with loss, and an emergence into adulthood. What we're experiencing globally with collapse is a global initiation into new growth and true adulthood, elderhood – not age per se – it has more to do with wisdom than age.
FJS: In your introduction to Sacred Demise you write that the collapse of industrial civilization is a “necessary evolutionary trauma in the odyssey of planet earth.” Can you explain what you mean by this?
CB: Collapse is undeniably going to be painful. But it will also be an enormous precedent for the transformation of the human consciousness. Again, with loss comes growth – or at the very least, the conditions for growth. We can embrace collapse and accomplish small tribal living and local problem solving – this is really a tremendous opportunity to organize locally. It's very important to hold the visions and potentialities of transitioning in the wake of collapse. One initiative I have become a part of is Transition Town ; this is not a magic, silver bullet but it is a viable option and vision, and much better to hold onto than only the dark realities. Remember the tension of opposites.
FJS: Can you talk a little about Transition Town ?
CB: Absolutely. Basically, Transition Town is a worldwide network organizing around energy breakdown, but is also a community response to climate change, economic meltdown, and even the possibility of the complete evaporation of the dollar; some Transition Towns are working on creating local currencies. The Transition Town group in Montpelier , Vermont (Transition Town Montpelier) is currently holding a nine-day Village-Building Convergence to educate the local communities regarding the exigencies of collapse such as emergency response and feeding communities. This is a prime example of embracing collapse in order to strengthen community relations and redefine social arrangements so as to be sustainable and non-hierarchical.
FJS: You write that one can find beauty in collapse; what role does beauty play in the throes of collapse?
CB: We must find beauty in everything we do. Part of the reason we're in the paradigm we're in now is that many people lost a sense of, and connection to, beauty in life, in nature on earth. As for collapse, there can be tremendous beauty in preparation for collapse and community organizing. In a section in his book, A World Made By Hand , James Howard Kunstler writes about homemade musical instruments, for example. Combined with dance, voice and music can solidify the community in sacred ritual, merriment, and conviviality as they have for thousands of years among our ancestors. This to me is beautiful. Poetry, too, is so important. Music, art, story telling, and ritual – all of this we must express and enjoy. We have the opportunity to relearn the language of soul. The language of industrial civilization is so linear – the soul wants us to learn a new language. Beauty is that magnificent and mysterious bridge to nature, to ourselves, and to the sacred. If our work is to further open our hearts, allow our egos to die, and fully surrender to the greater self, then beauty is the consummate facilitator of that process.
FJS: There is a poem written by Clarissa Pinkola Estes that you share with your readers in Sacred Demise –
CB: Yes, it's titled Father Earth .
FJS: Yeah, that's the one – it's a very beautiful poem.
There's a two million year-old man no one knows.
They cut into his rivers.
They peeled wide pieces of his hide from his legs.
They left scorch marks on his buttocks.
He did not cry out.
No matter what they did, he did not cry out.
He held firm.
Now he raises his stabbed hands and whispers that we can heal him yet.
We begin the bandages. The rolls of gauze. The gut, the needle, the grafts.
We slowly, carefully, turn his body face up.
And under him, his lifelong lover, the old woman is perfect and unmarked.
He has laid upon his two million year-old woman all this time
Protecting her with his old back, his old scarred back.
And the soil beneath her is fertile and black with her tears.
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