By Carolyn Baker of Speaking Truth to Power
DATELINE: May 23rd, 2008
Well here it is folks-the great unraveling so many of us have been forecasting during the past five years as we’ve read the tea leaves and researched the unprecedented convergence of myriad natural, political, economic, and environmental realities. As most of you know, I’m traveling, yes on the road, across this country. I was going to wait until arriving at my final destination before writing about my experience, but with oil rapidly heading for $200 a barrel, it feels important to do so sooner rather than later because our lives have just changed more dramatically than we can imagine, and we will only be able to comprehend to what extent as the repercussions of the end of the age of oil reverberate through what is left of industrial civilization.
In my travels I’ve seen exactly one RV on the road, a few SUV’s and vans, a number of small cars and motorcycles, and lots of eighteen-wheelers going 55 MPH. Motels have a record low number of guests, and few people are eating in restaurants. I thought about writing an article entitled “Ghost Town USA: Echo Across America”, but that was before oil reached a new record of $135 yesterday. The speed of collapse is taking even a seasoned collapse-watcher like me by somewhat of a surprise, and I feel compelled to talk about it as it unfolds in this moment.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of what we are witnessing-and there are oh so many, is the ubiquitousness of blame. Attending almost every report on skyrocketing gas prices is the question: “So whose fault is it?” I certainly am not surprised by this, but I find it unsettling to say the least. Because Americans in particular have been absolutely recalcitrant and incapable of looking at collapse, they are being and will continue to be increasingly blindsided by it. Sadly, when humans are traumatized, their functioning becomes progressively more primal and animal-like, and their capacity for taking in and assimilating new information is markedly reduced.
When Peak Oil experts first began sharing their research, they told us that food, perhaps more than any aspect of our lives, would be impacted by it, and so it is. The double-barreled trauma now hitting Americans which is putting both gasoline and food out of their reach, is certain to result in reactive, vindictive behavior that will irrationally target a plethora of scapegoats. Add to this a foreclosure or two, a bankruptcy, car repossession, job loss or loss of health insurance and you have a recipe for mayhem. Such behavior, understandable as it may be, is adolescent in nature and therefore, untempered and unwizened, making acting-out individuals exceedingly dangerous to themselves and others.
Like me, you are probably witnessing the barrage of blame in your community and nationally if you are paying attention to mainstream news. Dmitry Orlov has given us a treasure-trove of information about human behavior in the throes of collapse chaos. What is and will be different from the collapse of the Soviet Union for Americans, however, is the level of violence that is likely to proliferate as collapse accelerates. Russians were never intoxicated with affluence and entitlement as Americans are. Their history has been replete with suffering; ours marinated in privilege reinforced by gun culture and firearm fetishes.
What those of us who comprehend collapse must understand as we navigate the daunting days ahead is that what is happening to America and the human species is an initiatory experience similar to those which have been structured and honored by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. The very best explanation I have read of this process is Nature And The Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness And Community In A Fragmented World, an extraordinary book by psychologist Bill Plotkin in which he illuminates the stages of human development and emphasizes how they have been skewed by a capitalistic, consumer-driven culture-and how each stage might be lived in fulfillment in the context of a holistic community. The current planetary initiation differs from the traditional, tribal initiation in that the former is involuntary and unwanted, whereas the latter is perceived as essential for the well being of the initiate and the tribe.
In tribal cultures young people have the opportunity to experience ritual rites of passage from adolescence to adulthood, that is, an initiation, which involves some type of ordeal created and supported by the tribe’s elders. Ordeals may include rugged endurance challenges in the wilderness, treacherous hunting experiences, or isolation for a period of time in nature. In all instances, the experience is one of discomfort and danger and literally sets up a brush with death for the initiate. Many traditional societies, and some psychologists such as Carl Jung, believe that the human psyche requires initiatory experiences in order to develop in a functional manner and that without them, one’s emotional and spiritual development is impaired.
Since cultures are comprised of individuals, it follows that when the individuals of the culture have not been initiated, the culture itself is likely to remain in an adolescent state. Many cultures that have experienced collective suffering such as protracted wars, famines, and disease have in the process, experienced a collective initiation which may produce some of the results of an individual initiation. This may be the reason that some European countries that endured two world wars appear to have a more mature relationship with the earth community. For example, many of those countries are far more aware of environmental issues and have taken more profound steps to live consciously in harmony with the ecosystem as noted in a recent National Geographic survey which ranks the U.S. last in environmentally conscious behavior.
I believe that the collapse of civilization, now accelerating at dizzying speed, is indeed a collective, planetary initiation of the human species. It involves all of us, not just those “clueless Americans out there”, and it will deliver to each of us countless unwanted ordeals on every level-physical, emotional, financial, social, and spiritual. What traditional cultures which practice ritual initiation understand about it is that what matters most in the initiatory process is not whether the initiate survives physically, but that that person’s consciousness is transformed-for her own enhancement and for that of the tribe.
What I want to reinforce for all of us is how imperative it is in the days ahead for us to walk consciously, cautiously, and compassionately through the fires of this long, protracted initiation. Beyond our physical, financial, and logistic preparations, we must continuously work-and it will be work-to open our hearts and minds to the larger purpose behind the ordeals. We must ask ourselves what each particular experience wants to reveal to us, how it comes to us to open our eyes and cleanse the doors of our perception. We will be incessantly reminded that civilization has come to all this-depletion and exhaustion of the earth community and all of the suffering that attends that. In a sense, I believe, we are fortunate to be living in this time and on this planet because something greater than our finite human egos is delivering a message with unmistakable clarity: Living estranged from the earth community as if we are the only and the most important species on earth does not work, and collapse wishes to make certain that we understand unequivocally and irrevocably that our only survival and our only serenity will be found in living as if we and the earth are one.
Moreover, because we and the earth community are one, it is imperative that we reach out to our neighbors and community members. Their awareness may range from totally clueless to that of fellow collapse watcher, but bonds must be made and trust built-for our well being and for theirs. In the days ahead, we will need them, and they will need us. The more familiar we are with each other, the less likely that any of us is scapegoated or victimized by panicked, hungry people who feel victimized and powerless to cope with what they perceive they have been dealt.
The time for a sense of entitlement is over. We are not entitled to anything; I repeat: We are not entitled to anything. Each day, each moment, each breath, each bite of food and drop of water, each smile or warm hand on our shoulder, if we are fortunate enough to have them, are precious gifts to be savored, treasured, and given thanks for.
As I have been writing in recent months, I hold a vision of possibility-the potential for small pockets of survivors to create local outposts of conscious community in which individuals can live compassionately, practicing out of necessity and choice, those behaviors that sustain themselves and the earth. Those who have already begun this process may have an advantage, but none of us will be immune-nor should we be, in my opinion. It appears that this momentous initiation is the only way in which humans can fully and finally comprehend the toxicity of civilization.
Many citizens of the former Soviet Union discovered through the experience of collapse what ultimately mattered most. Yes, there was violence, crime, paranoia, hunger, thirst, deprivation, and astounding loss, but unprecedented compassion, trust, bonding, cooperation, and support flourished in the midst of total societal disintegration. For me, collapse is the opportunity for an outpouring of the latter qualities that causes me to at least partially welcome the demise of all that has prevented us from living and sharing them. Perhaps finally, amid a frightening unraveling, we will grow up-becoming mature human beings who ultimately find it impossible to tolerate anything remotely resembling industrial civilization because we will at last have become adults.
Carolyn Baker, a Cyrano’s Journal contributing writer, publishes her own blog, SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER.