Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves

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switters's picture
switters
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Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves

A recent blog post from John Michael Greer.  He argues that the greatest challenges we face as a nation are not technological, but social, psychological and spiritual.  Unfortunately, these issues are unlikely to be addressed on any meaningful scale.  Instead, we'll put all of our energy and resources into to returning to "business as usual" - no matter how unsustainable our way of life has become.

Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves
Of all the fallacies that surround the contemporary crisis of industrial civilization, and have done so much to bring that crisis down on us, the most seductive is the assumption that it’s a technical problem that can be solved by technical means. That’s an easy assumption to make, for a variety of reasons, but it puts us in the situation of the drunkard in the old joke who looks for his keys under the streetlight half a block from the dark sidewalk where he dropped them, since under the streetlight he can at least see what he’s doing.

The technical aspects of our predicament, though challenging, are the least of our worries; it’s the other aspects that have proven intractable. Consider the project of cutting US per capita energy consumption to a third of its present level. Given that the average European uses a third as much energy each year as the average American, and in many ways gets a better standard of living out of it, this is far from impossible; a great deal of the technology is sitting on the shelf only one continent away, in effect, and simply needs to be put to work.

Now of course such a project would require a great deal of investment in railways, mass transit, urban redevelopment, and the like, but what’s been spent on recent military adventures in the Middle East would cover much of it – and let’s not even talk about what could be done with the funds being wasted right now to prop up Wall Street banks looted by their own executives in the final blowoff of an epoch of corporate kleptocracy. The return on the investment needed to cut our energy use to European levels, in turn, would be immense. Since the US still produces more than a third of the oil it uses, to name only one result, we would no longer be sending billions of dollars a year to line the pockets of Middle Eastern despots; we’d be a net exporter of oil – even, quite conceivably, a member of OPEC.

So why isn’t so sensible a project being debated right now in the halls of Congress? Why, more broadly, has energy conservation through lifestyle change – arguably the single easiest and most cost effective option we have on hand in dealing with the end of the age of cheap oil – been entirely off the political and cultural radar screens since the end of the 1970s, so much so that most of those who have noticed that we’re running out of cheap abundant energy have framed the issue entirely in terms of finding some technical gimmick that will let us keep on living the way we live now?

This is where the technical dimension of our predicament gives way to a region where the forces that matter are not the cut-and-dried facts of physics and engineering, but murkier factors – political, cultural, psychological, and (let’s whisper the word) spiritual – and what’s theoretically possible matters a great deal less than what’s culturally and emotionally acceptable. Most writers on peak oil, though not all, have tended to shy away from this unsettled and unsettling territory. This is quite understandable; industrial culture privileges technical knowledge and rewards those who can (or say they can) make the machinery of our daily life purr more smoothly and profitably, and shuts its ears against those who ask questions about the purposes the machines serve and the emotional drives that make those purposes seem to make sense. Still, this leaves us scrabbling around with the drunkard under the streetlight, searching for keys that are lying in the dark half a block away.

It’s for this reason, among others, that I was pleased to get a copy of Carolyn Baker’s new book, Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse. Those of my readers who are familiar with Baker’s blog and mine will probably be able to imagine, if they don’t happen to have followed, some of the lively disagreements we’ve had, and it will doubtless come as no surprise that some of the arguments made in Sacred Demise seem problematic to me. Still, those issues of detail are less important than what Baker has tried, with quite some success, to accomplish with this book. What Sacred Demise represents is the first really sustained effort to pull the debate over the future of industrial civilization out of the comfortable realm of technical questions, and force it to confront the deeper and fundamentally nonrational factors that have done so much to keep effective solutions out of reach.

The title of the book may need some explanation, because Sacred Demise deals at least as much with psychology as with religion. Admittedly the line between these two has become blurred in recent years; as the modern West has redefined religion wholly in terms of personal relationships with the transcendent, and made its collective aspects increasingly hard to sustain, psychology has come to play the role in modern religious movements that theology still plays in their more traditional sisters. While this shift has had its share of dubious results, it has allowed some crucial religious themes – the imminence of death, the quest for meaning in human existence, and the challenge both these level at individuals and societies alike, among others – to remain live issues in a passionately secular age.

These themes, in turn, frame Baker’s approach. She argues that we are long past the point at which the unraveling of the industrial age can be prevented, and our options at this point are limited to facing the difficult future ahead of us, on the one hand, or pretending it isn’t there until it overwhelms us, on the other. She dissects the logic of those who only want to hear about solutions, tracing it back into its deep roots in the fear of death and the attempt to cling to familiar patterns of meaning even when those no longer make sense of our experience, and she tackles the awkward but necessary issues all of us have to confront as decline and fall sets in: the need to mourn, to confront the reality of death, to find new narratives to make sense of a rapidly changing world. .

For Baker, then, the core task of our time is not how to prevent collapse; decades of mishandled opportunities have put that hope out of reach. Nor does she embrace the futile strategy of trying to hide out in survivalist enclaves until the rubble stops bouncing. Instead, she calls us to face collapse squarely and personally, as a reality that is already shaping our lives, and will do so ever more forcefully in the years to come. Facing collapse, in turn, requires us to deal with the whole realm of personal baggage we each bring to the experience of decline and fall. That’s a crucial issue, for the unstated psychological and religious subtexts of the crisis of industrial civilization have played a huge role in confusing the already complex issues facing the world just now.

Thus it’s vital to realize, when somebody insists that technological progress will inevitably lead our species to immortality among the stars, or when somebody else insists that contemporary civilization has become the ultimate incarnation of everything evil and will shortly be destroyed so that the righteous remnant can inhabit a perfect world, that what they’re saying has very little to do with the facts on the ground. Rather, these are statements of religious belief that coat mythic themes millennia old in a single coat of secular spraypaint. If, dear reader, one or the other of these is your religion, that’s fine – you have as much right to your faith as I have to mine – but please, for the love of Darwin, could you at least admit that it’s a religious belief, an act of faith in a particular constellation of numinous experience, rather than a self-evident truth that any sane and moral person must automatically accept?

This last point, I have to admit, goes a little beyond what Baker has to say, and in fact my central criticism of Sacred Demise is precisely that it doesn’t quite manage to apply its sharpest insights to Baker’s own point of view. That view is perilously close to the latter of the religious viewpoints mentioned above; for Baker, the diverse and morally complex reality of the industrial world is flattened into a single vast and terrible abstraction labeled by turns Civilization and Empire, the exact equivalent of Babylon and the kingdom of Satan in her historical mythology. Psychologically, this might best be described in Jungian terms as a bad case of projecting the shadow; in religious terms, it represents a drastic confusion between the realms of being, mistakenly mapping one of the great themes of myth and religious vision onto the messy and prosaic realities of everyday existence.

For all that, Sacred Demise is a crucially important book. It is not the last word on the subject, nor do I think Baker would want it to be; rather, it’s the first word in a conversation that we desperately need to start, as the high notes of economic crisis mingle with the basso-profundo of declining energy reserves, pushing us further and further away from the world of business-as-usual fantasy we have tried to inhabit for the last quarter century. We need to start talking about how we can hold onto our humanity in bitter times; about how we can find reasons for hope and sources of necessary joy as so many of our former certainties crumble to dust; about what stories we can use to bring meaning to the world when so many of our familiar meanings no longer make sense of anything. In order to face the realities of decline, in other words, we have to face ourselves, and Baker’s book is a significant contribution to that vital task.

The Archdruid Report 04/01/09 [email protected] (John Michael Greer)

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Re: Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves

Thanks for posting John Michael Greer's blog post, Chris.  I think Carolyn Baker, author of Sacred Demise, makes some good points.  Our inability as a society to face the collapse we are undergoing, and then deal with it as constructively as possible, seems to reflect the inability many of us experience personally with families and friends.  Thanks for sharing.

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Re: Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves

chris you are absolutely correct. i just got home from a program called fayetteville forward where people (250)

discussed their dreams for the future of the city and they not only think it will be business as usual but they think it will continue to grow.

one dream was for smart growth.......................i now know how albert bartlett feels when he presents his ideas , i was a stranger in a strange land sitting with two real estate developers. growth is not only a given it is being promoted.

i was in a roomn of 250 people who at minimum believe the next twenty years will be just about the same if not more so.

the meeting was facilitated by a progressive cheerleader.

i not only have met the enemy but found them to be my neighbors.................the job of educating them is monumental

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Re: Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves

Joe,

Did you sit and listen or did you bring up and counter points to their thinking?

Bill

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Re: Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves

hahahahaha castle

i have posted over 550 times on this site ................do you think i could sit still .

they think frn's will last forever. they think every town in the u.s. will have light rail. they think that if the population of fayetteville doubles in 10 years they can plan for it, they have not thought about $200 a barrel oil and what the cost of asphalt will be. they have no concept of the three e's and how they are related. i could go on but i have my work cut out for me. we are starting a transition town initiative so in 6 months to a year we hope to have made some headway. paul glover will be here in may to help us set up local currency "ozark hours"

smart growth my ass

we are few and the task large but as we say in india kaikaroo.................what to do?

 

joe

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Re: Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves

I hear ya.  When I bring any of what's happening at work they look at me like I have three heads.  They really think that I've lost it. 

I just can't believe what is really going on. 

I really enjoy your posts, keep it up!

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Re: Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves

Keep me in mind for that, Joe.......I was partially raised in Greenwood AR. Put that in your notes.

 

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Re: Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves
joe2baba wrote:

smart growth my ass

we are few and the task large but as we say in india kaikaroo.................what to do?

That is the million dollar question, my friend.

I am firmly convinced that the most difficult challenge we face is denial.

Most people find it difficult - if not impossible - to accept that our current way of life is coming to an end.  

The irony is that although most people are unhappy with modern life, they hold on tight and will seemingly do anything to preserve it.  They prefer to enduring the misery of the known to facing the fear of the unknown. 

This perpetuates belief in "smart growth" and other such oxymorons.  It prevents people from seeing things as they are.

This is as much a psychological and spiritual crisis as it is an economic or environmental one.  Or, more accurately, we cannot address the economic and environmental challenges we face without addressing the psychological and spiritual issues underlying those problems.

 

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Re: Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves
Chris Kresser wrote:

I am firmly convinced that the most difficult challenge we face is denial.

Most people find it difficult - if not impossible - to accept that our current way of life is coming to an end.  

The irony is that although most people are unhappy with modern life, they hold on tight and will seemingly do anything to preserve it.  They prefer to enduring the misery of the known to facing the fear of the unknown. 

Chris -

Great observations. 

"Success" (however you want to define it) sometimes doesn't stand up and holler out loud. 

Success on Tarawa and Iwo Jima was literally measured in feet per day.  Day to day it may be hard to see any progress being made - but it is being made.

Back when Mrs. Dogs first hammered CC into my thick skull, I was reluctant to say much (I know, that concept is hard to believe).  Then as I was exposed to the people on the site and what they were bringing, I learned more.  I started emailing the onesy, twosey Martenson reports and various articles to a handful of people at work.  Being Naval Academy classmates with our Commodore allows a degree of freedom in "extracurricular" knowledge dissemination.  That circle of 4 has grown to about 20 (~20% of the number of people at the command) - all have been through the Crash Course, all are doing varying levels of preparation, all are at least open to "community building" concepts, some have actually taken steps to spread the word to their external circle of friends and neighbors.  Now, nearly every day, there are conversations about what is going on and what people are doing.

I asked some of the latecomers why all of a sudden they were listening - they all said something to the effect of "Well, we constantly hear how bad the economy is, we figured we better learn something."

I think there is a fine line between denial and ignorance.  Ignorance may just be the inability to understand what is going on so it's easier to ignore it - passive denial if you will.  Then there are the doubting Thomases - who hear, run the info through some bit of cognitive processing, and choose to dismiss the info as absurd, or with a "that won't happen, the government will take care of things".  Those are the active deniers who won't come around until the proof they seek manifests when TSHTF.  And it will likely be too late for them.

The passive deniers can be a fertile field - if you just sow one row at a time and be happy with what you get.

 

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Re: Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves
Chris Kresser wrote:
joe2baba wrote:

smart growth my ass

we are few and the task large but as we say in india kaikaroo.................what to do?

That is the million dollar question, my friend.

I am firmly convinced that the most difficult challenge we face is denial.

Most people find it difficult - if not impossible - to accept that our current way of life is coming to an end.  

The irony is that although most people are unhappy with modern life, they hold on tight and will seemingly do anything to preserve it.  They prefer to enduring the misery of the known to facing the fear of the unknown. 

This perpetuates belief in "smart growth" and other such oxymorons.  It prevents people from seeing things as they are.

This is as much a psychological and spiritual crisis as it is an economic or environmental one.  Or, more accurately, we cannot address the economic and environmental challenges we face without addressing the psychological and spiritual issues underlying those problems.

Chris, Thanks for the great article and the thread. yes, DENIAL is our deadliest enemy. 

Amazingly, we as a species know that we are better, smarter, and more able than any other race or specie that has ever existed so we are not at risk like the others that no longer exist!   Go figure.

Joe, You nailed it!  I happened to give a presentation at a smart growth conference last October. My presentation was about energy and resource depletion and that smart growth was really an oxymoron. Needless to say it didn't go over .......mostly a denial issue!   "Besides, it was discovered that oil is created under the earth's crust and we will never run out." 

Shortly after that I visited the CM site and did the CC..........and although I had suspected that things were pretty dire, I of course did a meltdown which has resulted in a rebuild and complete reorganization as regards priorities etc.  Amazingly the anxiety ar regards "what is really going on" has vanished and I am feeling much more at ease and happy about my activities and the new friends I am connecting up with!

Dogs, Sounds like you are making great progress in what I would consider a very conservative group. Well done!

Coop

 

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Re: Facing Decline, Facing Ourselves

Dogs et al,

I agree that there's an important difference between ignorance and denial.

Ignorance is based on a lack of information, or an inability to understand or synthesize information being presented.

Denial is a reaction arising from the inability to process the emotions stimulated by a given piece of information. 

People who are in denial are not ignorant.  If someone doesn't understand the reality or implications of PO, for example, there's nothing to "deny".  They're simply ignorant. 

But when someone begins to comprehend the significance of PO, and how it will affect their lives and the lives of their loved ones, strong emotions are bound to arise.  Fear, sadness, hopelessness, helplessness and anger are all likely candidates.

If the person is not able to be present to these emotions without being overwhelmed by them, they will likely shut down and go into denial to avoid feeling them altogether.  

That is why I continue to believe that emotional maturity is an important factor in mounting an appropriate response to these challenges.

Unfortunately, emotional immaturity is what is celebrated and revered in the US.  Have a look at MTV and People Magazine for examples.

Very few people have the emotional or spiritual strength to hear that their entire way of life as they've known it is likely coming to an end without going into denial.  Almost everyone on this site - myself included - likely went through denial at some point in their journey.  

What is needed desperately is a way of guiding and supporting people through denial and the following stages of awareness until they reach acceptance, which is the precondition for meaningful and sustained action.  This support could come in the form of friends or mentors in the local community, spiritual or religious practice, psychological inquiry, traditional ritual or any number of other modalities.

If we don't address this aspect of transition, I fear we'll stay stuck in denial, wishful thinking and fear.  That is certainly what's happening now.  Our leaders have thus far lacked either the insight to figure out what is going on, the strength to realize the implications, or the courage to tell the people.  That has to change.

 

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