Carolyn Baker: The Spirituality of Collapse


Richard Moore

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The Spirituality of Collapse
by Carolyn Baker

Sunday, 06 May 2007

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

The first edition of this article was written in February, 2006, but I have 
recently revised and updated it. Since the first writing, the theme of collapse 
seems to have reverberated around the world, now manifesting its symptoms in the
scientific community¹s latest dramatic reports on global warming, the issue of 
Peak Oil coming further out of the closet ‹ being discussed openly in mainstream
media, and the bursting of the U.S. housing bubble that now finds 1 out of every
264 homes in the nation facing foreclosure as each day the value of the dollar 
decreases and the value of  precious metals soars.

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 planet¹s life on 
hold as they await ³the rapture²‹and still others, like the LaHaye-Jenkins 
crowd, bankroll millions from the profits of their ³end times² 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 
³tension of the opposites.² In holding that tension, Jung taught, lies the 
potential for transforming our inner and outer worlds.

For most Americans, heads anchored firmly in the sand, shrugging off anything 
they are now hearing about ³Peak Oil,² 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 civilization¹s collapse is still 
largely relegated to the lunatic fringe. Whatever the problem, they cluelessly 
argue, technology will find a solution. But millions of those same individuals 
are far deeper in debt than they were one year ago, and during that year, they 
have seen the prices of gas, food, and virtually everything else dramatically 
increase. Some of those Americans have in the past year have had to face the 
reality that they are part 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, childcare, medical expenses, gas 
prices, and doubling monthly credit card bills, now realize that not only will 
they not be able to pay for their kids¹ college education but that every new day
necessitates walking more precariously 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. It¹s still too horrifying to fully 

For both groups 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
³dormitories,² 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, weather and climate as we have known 
them, and the money system to which we have become accustomed. 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 ³death.² We go 
to extraordinary lengths to dress it up, pretty-fy it, deny it, and as my 
favorite of all meaningless anti-death cliche goes, ³put it behind us.² 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 ³exception,² 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, ³There 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.² (Report on America, International Psychoanalytic 
Congress, Nuremberg, 1910) America the nation is not likely to ³face itself,² 
but as individual Americans, we must, if we intend to successfully navigate 

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 one¹s 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 ³collapsed² thirteen 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, ³Openness doesn¹t come from resisting our
fears, but from getting to know them well.² (Comfortable With Uncertainty, P. 

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. Civilization¹s 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 don¹t look 
deeper, you won¹t 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 supercede 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 countless individuals who have had everything stripped away as a result
of speaking truth to power. One day they were ³solid citizens² with sterling 
careers; the next day, they were ³enemies of the state² 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 
one¹s 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.¹s in ³self-sufficiency² 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 won¹t 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 ³Solari Investor Circles²: which join
small groups of people together to research the resources in their community and
how they can use those to prepare for collapse. A particularly useful tool in 
the Solari model is the concept of ³Coming Clean² by Catherine Austin Fitts, 
which offers individual and group guidelines for working harmoniously to 
transform our communities from the inside out. Another is my article ³Preparing 
For Collapse: Three Things You Can Do².

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 ³pests² that we resent as unhygienic or annoying may, in fact, 
save our lives. One year ago, the honey bees used to circle around me on warm 
days when I ate my lunch outside under the trees, sitting on the grass. Today, I
sit under the same trees on the same grass, but the honey bees are gone. No one 
seems to be able to tell us why. Maybe it¹s time to ask the bees to tell us why.

Paradoxically, 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 ³purpose.² With civilization¹s 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, in the 
eerie echoing of our voices throughout abandoned suburbs, 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 ³purpose-driven life² will no longer exist. Humans will be ³driven² 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 I¹m 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, treat each others¹ illnesses, bury one 
another, 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 ³fundamentalism² in the truest sense of the word. In a 
post-collapse world, ³fundamental² 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 ³lesser collapses² of 
civilization that we see around us, such as the loss of a viable, uncorrupted 
electoral process, the demise of centralized systems and corporations that no 
one ever thought would go bankrupt, 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 231 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, ³Get to 
know collapse well.²

Some people tell me that they would rather not know what¹s 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, we¹re 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 Activism³

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

‹Richard Heinberg, Beyond The Peak³

Never underestimate the power of compassionately recognizing what¹s going on.

‹Pema Chödrön

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