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Navigating the Collapse of Civilization: a Spiritual Map
by Carolyn Baker, Ph.D

Civilization is a mental/material world of culturally transmitted illusion.
                                                                                - William Kötke

Recently, I seem to have been bombarded from every direction with the theme of collapse. Whether in the writings of Mike Ruppert, Richard Heinberg, William Kötke, Jason Godesky, James Howard Kunstler, or Jared Diamond, the theme of collapse keeps reverberating, unsettling me, relentlessly reminding me that the demise of human civilization is in process and will not go away.

As I share my awareness of collapse with others, I meet a variety of responses. Many, especially those folks in academia, and the history profession in particular, view the idea of collapse with bemused scorn, asserting that while civilization might appear to be collapsing, current events are not really new and are merely variations on prior historical occurrences. At the opposite end of the spectrum, fundamentalist Christians read current events through the tea leaves of biblical prophecies—some putting their own and the planet's life on hold as they await “the rapture”—and still others, like the LaHaye-Jenkins crowd, bankroll millions from the profits of their “end times” prognostications.

But in the spirit of one of the wisest teachers of all time, psychologist Carl Jung, I find bone-marrow truth, not in the cerebral disengagement of academia nor in the apocalyptic madness of literal interpretations of the Book of Revelation, but somewhere in the middle, holding, as Jung would say, the “tension of the opposites.” In holding that tension, Jung taught, lies the potential for transforming our inner and outer worlds.

For most Americans marinated in materialism, heads anchored firmly in the sand, never having heard the words “Peak Oil,” still driving their gas-gulping SUVs, reveling in suburban sprawl, and gullibly counting on their pensions and 401Ks to be there when they need them, the notion of civilization's collapse is ludicrous and merely the latest obsession of the lunatic fringe. For other Americans of the rapidly-vanishing middle class who are only one paycheck or one catastrophic illness away from financial oblivion—who between mortgage, car payments, monthly bills, medical expenses, gas prices, and doubling monthly credit card bills, realize that not only will they not be able to pay for their kids’ college education but that every day they are now walking over an economic tightrope across a gaping precipice with a thousand-foot drop. Those folks know in their bones the reality of collapse—they feel it, smell it, taste it, but may not yet be able to allow the words to pass from their lips. Others, such as the individuals I've named above, are the prophets and John the Baptists of our time who get in our faces and scream “Repent!” or in less biblical language: “Wake the hell up!”

For the first and second group of Americans, collapse is very bad news. It will mean the end of lifestyles they cannot imagine living without. They have become their lifestyle, and in its absence, they believe they will have no identity—that literally, they will cease to exist. For these folks, collapse will be extremely painful, and worse. Since they have isolated themselves in their hermetically-sealed suburban “dormitories,” they are not likely to survive unless they are willing to radically alter their behavior, and by the time they are, if they are, it may be far too late to do so.

Unquestionably, collapse will be brutal and agonizing. It is, in fact, the cessation of life based on fossil fuels. It will be physically, economically, emotionally, and spiritually excruciating. It will test human beings, particularly those individuals who are not members of the ruling elite but who enjoy privileged, comfortable lifestyles devoid of sacrifice and inconvenience, beyond anything they could imagine in their worst nightmares. Some will endure; others will perish; in fact, some experts speculate that at least one-third of humans on planet Earth will not survive. Whether collapse occurs slowly or quickly, it will be torturous.

Collapse is a form of death, and Americans do not like the word “death.” We go to extraordinary lengths to dress it up, pretty-fy it, deny it, and as my favorite of all meaningless anti-death clichés goes, “put it behind us.” Like banshees, we drive ourselves heroically in the first half of life as if there were no death. It will engulf others but not us. We are the “exception,” and whether as individual Americans or as a nation, we are addicted to our exceptionalism—others will die; not us. Other civilizations will collapse; not ours. Yet it was Jung who said that, “There is a great obligation laid upon the American people—that it shall face itself—that it shall admit its moment of tragedy in the present—admit that it has a great future only if it has the courage to face itself.” (Report on America, International Psychoanalytic Congress, Nuremberg, 1910) America the nation is not likely to “face itself,” but as individual Americans, we must, if we intend to successfully navigate collapse.

I too resist collapse, but at the same time that I resist it for similar or different reasons from those around me, I am also consciously working to embrace it. To embrace something or someone is not necessarily to throw one's arms wildly around that event or person, but to slowly, intentionally open to the gifts inherent in what we most dread. I do not say this lightly. I am a survivor of breast cancer. My world “collapsed” twelve years ago when I was diagnosed with it. But as is frequently the case, my world was also transformed by a terminal illness, and I became a different person as a result of it. As the Buddhist teacher, Pema Chödrön writes, “Openness doesn't come from resisting our fears, but from getting to know them well.” (Comfortable With Uncertainty, P. 47)

So what might be some of the gifts of collapse?

First, collapse strips us of who we think we are so that who we really are may be revealed. Civilization's toxicity has fostered the illusion that one is, for example, a professional person with money in the bank, a secure mortgage, a good credit rating, a healthy body and mind, raising healthy children who will grow up to become successful like oneself, and that when one retires, one will be well-taken-care of. If that has become your identity, and if you don't look deeper, you won't discover who you really are; and when collapse happens, you will be shattered because you have failed to notice the strengths, resources, and gifts that abide in your essence which transcend and supersede your ego-identity. In a post-collapse world, academic degrees and stock portfolios matter little. The real question, as Richard Heinberg so succinctly puts it is: Do you know how to make shoes?

Just ask Mike Ruppert, Catherine Austin Fitts, Celerino Castillo, or countless others who have had everything stripped away as a result of speaking truth to power. One day they were “solid citizens” with sterling careers; the next day, they were “enemies of the state” fearing for their very lives. We can learn much from their journeys about preparing for life after collapse. One way to prepare is to explore the issue of identity apart from one's social roles. For me, a spiritual path has been crucial in assessing who I am apart from what I do.

Secondly, collapse will decimate our anti-tribal, individualistic, Anglo-American programming by forcing us to join with others for survival. You may own a home outright with ample acreage on which you have produced a stunning organic garden, have a ten-year cache of food and water, drive a hybrid car, and live a completely solarized life, but if you think you will survive in isolation, you are tragically deluded. Collapse dictates that we will depend on each other, or we will die.

I have been an activist for over thirty years. Without exception, every time I have been involved with other activists in promoting change, personalities clash, egos become bruised, people tantrum, become disillusioned, and walk away from the group. We all seem to have Ph.D.’s in “self-sufficiency” but remain tragically ignorant of genuine cooperation. We will transform this pattern as civilization collapses, or we will perish, and the process of that transformation probably won't be a pretty picture. However, we can begin preparing in present time for the collective thinking and action that collapse will necessitate by, for example, starting “Solari Investor Circles”, which join small groups of people together to research the resources in their community and how they can use those to prepare for the consequences of Peak Oil. A particularly useful tool in the Solari model is the concept of “Coming Clean” by Catherine Austin Fitts, which offers individual and group guidelines for working harmoniously to transform our communities from the inside out.

Not only will we be compelled to relate differently to humans, but to all beings in the non-human world as well. Only as we begin to read the survival manuals that trees, stars, insects, and birds have written for us, will our species be spared. The very “pests” that we resent as unhygienic or annoying may, in fact, save our lives.

Moreover, collapse may bring meaning and purpose to our lives which might otherwise have eluded us. In our linear, progress-based existence, we rarely contemplate words like “purpose.” With civilization's collapse, we may be forced to evaluate daily, perhaps moment to moment, why we are here, if we want to remain here, if life is worth living, if there is something greater than ourselves for which we are willing to remain alive and to which we choose to contribute energy. These decisions probably will not be made in the cozy comfort of our homes, but in the streets, the fields, the deserts, the forests, and beside forgotten rivers and trails. Purpose will rapidly cease being about what we can accomplish and will increasingly become more about who we are. In a collapsing world, the so-called “purpose-driven life” will no longer exist. Humans will be “driven” by only one issue: the determination to survive and assist loved ones in surviving. From that quest for survival will emerge authentic purpose, which will undoubtedly not resemble anything we can imagine today.

Lest the reader infer that I'm portraying collapse as some exercise in airy-fairy spirituality devoid of practicalities, I hasten to add that collapse will require humans to attend to the most pragmatic realities of existence—food, water, shelter, health care, and a host of other survival issues. As centralized systems such as federal, state, and local governments are eviscerated, communities will be compelled to unite in order to solve these issues—to grow gardens, make clothing and other items, create community currencies, and rebuild infrastructures on an intensely local level.

The quality of spirituality that may emerge from attending to such fundamentals may be a genuine “fundamentalism” in the truest sense of the word. In a post-collapse world, “fundamental” spirituality will be about caring for the basic needs of loved ones, becoming nurturing stewards of the ecosystems in whatever condition they may be at that time, noticing what one now values as opposed to what was most important prior to collapse—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling all aspects of existence to which we were oblivious, or only mildly attentive, before the distractions were stripped away. Certainly, this is not likely to be the comfortable, privileged, indulgent spirituality of the New Age workshop circuit, but may more closely resemble the earth-based honoring of the sacred that our tribal ancestors so dearly revered.

Spiritually, we can now begin preparing for the collapse of civilization as we have known it by opening ourselves each day to the “lesser collapses” of civilization that we see around us, such as the loss of a viable, uncorrupted electoral process, the demise of centralized systems, the decay of infrastructure, and the deterioration of institutions such as education, religion, health care, and the legal system. Human beings have had several thousand years to create functional societies, and in many cases, they have. Those civilizations have also collapsed because all civilizations ultimately do. The United States has had 230 years to fashion a sustainable nation. With the death of Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War, corporations and centralized systems triumphed in controlling every aspect of American life, and they have been doing so until the present moment. Thus, not surprisingly, in the 1970s when corporate America knew very well that U.S. oil production had peaked and that within three decades, the nation and the world would be confronting a catastrophic energy crisis, it did absolutely nothing, choosing rather to wallow in the profits of hydrocarbon energy and suppress alternative technology rather than assist the nation in building lifeboats.

For millennia, many indigenous people have described the demise of civilization we are now witnessing as a purification process—a time of rebirth and transformation. Their ancient wisdom challenges us to face with equanimity the collapse that is in process; that is, to hold as much as humanly possible in our hearts and minds, the reality of the pain the collapse will entail, alongside the unimaginable opportunities it offers. As Pema Chödrön would say, “Get to know collapse well.”

Some people tell me that they would rather not know what's going on because they prefer to live their lives from day to day doing the best they can to make a better world, enjoy their loved ones, and earn their bread. I certainly understand their desire to protect themselves from the pain of awareness, but I also know that they are exchanging long-term preparedness for temporary comfort and that the pain of awareness in present time is far less than the pain they will incur as a result of ignoring it.

I do not claim to be an expert on collapse or spirituality, but I leave you now with these words from wise women and men who are:

Only with this kind of equanimity can we realize that no matter what comes along, we're always standing in the middle of sacred space. Only with equanimity can we see that everything that comes into our circle has come to teach us what we need to know.
                                                                       -Pema Chödrön

We are clearly destroying ourselves. And yet, in this act of self-destruction, something is being revealed to us. From this point of view, the endless self-destruction that we are perpetrating on each other is the atemporal footprint of this revelation, expressed in symbolic form, projected in time, as it is the medium through which we can recognize what is being revealed.
                        - Paul Levy, Spiritually Informed Political Activism

It is a scary time to be alive, but it is a wonderful time to be alive. It is good to know that there is so much accumulated intelligence and compassion among us.
                                        - Richard Heinberg, Beyond The Peak

Never underestimate the power of compassionately recognizing what's going on.
                                                                     —Pema Chödrön


Carolyn Baker is an adjunct professor of history at Dona Ana Branch Community College in southern New Mexico.


(CC) 2006, Carolyn Baker. This article may be copied, distributed, displayed, and performed, and you may make derivative works from it, so long as the original author is given credit and it is not used for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.

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