The world is quickly ramping-up toward a full awareness of the various fundamental crises affecting our way of life (peak oil, economic collapse, religious/resource wars and strife, climate shift), and on the coat-tails of that might even come the larger awareness that our problems actually extend beyond mere individual “issues”–that in fact it is our entire culture which has teetered beyond the tipping-point of sustainable progress. So whether we’re ready for it or not, the veil of illusion about our way of life is about to be ripped away for a great many people, regardless of whether they’re immediately affected by these issues or not. But as many readers of this site are doubtless already aware, that experience of disillusionment, in and of itself, can be extremely distressing.
Yet for some reason those of us who might be considered analysts of the impending collapse rarely speak directly about this initial period of “culture shock”–although it’s a shock most of us have personally had to struggle through. And I think it’s crucial that we do talk about it, since how (and whether) we cope with this anxiety determines how (and whether) we will be able to embrace the life-changes that are being demanded of us.
In this respect I thought I’d offer my own thoughts on the subject, and if other readers choose to share their experiences as well then we’ll have preserved on the internet at least one little reference–maybe a kind of virtual support-group–for those who are suffering from culture-change anxiety.
But first I’ll say that what started me thinking about all this was a piece I penned a while back about the LA South Central farm collective called What Is It That You Would Chain Yourself To?. There were a number of good comments that were offered, but two of them in particular really struck home with me.
A reader “technofreak” said…
“I am sad, so sad about all this crap that is going on everyday where some asshole with more money than sense gets to make the decisions that negatively affect so many. It has to stop, it cant go on for too much more – it has to eventually eat itself through its own ignorance and stupidity…??!!
I feel sorry for those who lost the farm. It must have made them cry and end up feeling cold and alone….helpless.
For me personally I cannot say what I would’ve done….its not very nice.”
…and another comment by reader “slomo” put it more succinctly…
“Hard to say what I would chain myself up for, since there are so many things dying right now. It’s so depressing I sometimes feel I’m going to lose my mind.”
Then more recently, “Roger” responded to Tuesday’s post by saying…
“There is so much to read and so many stories are frightening, but still I hunger for more. It seems as if I *want* the whole thing to blow up so people around are confronted with the lies we’ve been put up with. But this will never happen (the part where people understand the lies).
…The whole situation has me banging between two opposites: the one side where I try and prepare a little for what’s coming by storing some food, getting some knowledge and buying useful items that would be priceless when TSHTF, like a waterpump. The other side tries to ignore all the warningsigns and has decided that if TSHTF all the fun and partying will be over, so I’m enjoying the rich western life to the fullest.
…And every day I’m being bounced between the idea that it would be good to rent some land and start growing my own food, but then I come home again and the microwave heats my dinner in 2 minutes, I can play World of Warcraft and go out partying like there is no tomorrow…In the end I would like to be more like you: take risks to go for something you really believe in, but considering my options I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Now as I mentioned, I’d wager that most of the people who read this site regularly either have or are still struggling to deal with these same kinds of psychic reactions. For myself I’ve come to accept such feelings as just necessary symptoms accompanying the profound process of disillusionment we’re being confronted with. It’s something that homeopaths frequently refer to by the term healing crisis, which is defined as a “severe symptom or set of symptoms that may appear quite suddenly or unexpectedly during the course of natural healing, and which can be temporarily uncomfortable. According to the principles of herbal medicine this is the body’s way of rebalancing and of discarding toxic residues that have built up over the years.”
So I thought I’d offer up some conclusions from my own experience. What I’ve found is that the most beneficial antidote to these initial feelings and reactions which threaten to overwhelm us (i.e. fear, depression, hopelessness, anger, a generalized “psychic vertigo”) actually lies through greater awareness of our problems and our situation, and not through “shutting out” or turning away from the discomfort these issues bring up–although this is often our instinctive reaction. But at the same time we also want to caution that we don’t allow ourselves to be drawn too forcefully into these topics either, and it’s quite common for many people to become like deer in the headlights when the first dawning of disillusionment begins to break–stricken with fright, yet unable to pull themselves away from the full glare of impending doom. As that psychiatrist nonpareil Dr. Seuss counseled, we should “remember that life’s a great balancing act”, and that frequent, small doses of disillusionment are much better for the digestion and the constitution than obsessive binging. It’s important that we work to “rebalance” ourselves, but we don’t want to “unbalancing ourselves in a different direction”.
Still I’ll emphasize that it is only through a deepening awareness of our situation that we will ultimately realize a positive change and a truer understanding, whether in our individual lives or as a society. In fact the chief problem we face is not the lack of communication or evidence and information, it’s that so many people turn away from any hint of self-recognition when they encounter the first signs of distress. And that’s true for even especially intelligent and enlightened people–there are certainly a great many sensitive, responsible, dedicated, spiritually and mentally well-developed people who haven’t a clue as yet about how our future is set to unfold.
So I think it’s crucial to try to clearly understand just how it is that a deepening awareness of something actually changes who I am. Suppose I decide, as an example, that I no longer wish to be in debt. Now if this decision has been made only intellectually, or perhaps during a bright but superficial flare-up of emotion, then I’ll most likely find that the decision doesn’t actually take root in me. Yes, I may pay a little extra on my credit card or mortgage for a month or two, but then I quickly fall behind again as my goal becomes forgotten. I can see then that the force of a merely “intellectual” decision or a momentary emotional outrage is really quite fleeting, and certainly not strong enough for the kind of determined persistence I need if I wish to effect a lasting change in my lifestyle. And if I notice this fact enough times I might come to recognize that in order to build real determination I have to see–to experience–my situation more clearly and more deeply. Thus I need to see again and again, and in ever new ways, how my indebtedness truly works to enslave me, and how it further serves to enrich people and corporations who are actively working against my freedom.
Another aspect to consider is this: that if I don’t strive for an ever clearer and deeper awareness I will almost certainly fall prey to the first comforting “answer” or “solution” I come across. Again, this stems from my instinctive desire to want to calm the inner discomfort, because I don’t naturally distinguish it as a stage in the healing process.
For instance, I’ve been seeing a great many stories in recent months lauding how society is set to embrace an “exciting green future” of green corporations and technologically advanced “sustainable eco-cities”. By my own reasoning, however, it’s clear that there will be no eco-cities in our future–or at least not for very long into our future. The kind of mega-cities we’ve seen exploding throughout the globe today are solely a symptom of life at the “peak”. And they’re among the least sustainable manifestations of our modern way of life. And the same could be said for large corporations, solar powered HVAC and eco-friendly shrink wrap or not.
But I didn’t come to this understanding simply through an intellectual accumulation of information, just as I couldn’t correspondingly adopt a belief in this coming green revolution of eco-cities merely by a sentimental kind of “hoping”. To recognize what is realistically possible and how a more beneficial future might unfold, I have to clearly see the reality of my present situation–and the only way to see this is by observing and questioning my direct, lived experience of it. Until I’ve observed over time how my day proceed, how my week proceeds, how my life proceeds, how the lives of those around me proceed, how the flows of energy and resources proceed, what the central desires and decisions of myself and my culture are, what I and my culture value and what might be required to redefine those values…countless such “intangible” and unquantifiable observations and a million other details, connections, and interweavings besides–until I’ve observed the living process of my life I can never have have any real confidence in what is real and what is fantasy. Thus I’ll eagerly embrace even the most fantastic of ideals that I’m offered if they serve to sooth my discomforts–sustainable mega-cities included.
The transformative affect that occurs when we actively attempt to observe and question a dozen tiny, unconscious habits and manifestations each day acts on us and has an effect over time, just as a myriad drops of water invariably work to reshape even the densest landscape. Not long ago I recommended Donella Meadows’ paper on “Leverage Points” which was a scientific investigation of how social paradigm change can efficiently come about (and why they often don’t). But the wisdom she offered applies to our personal paradigm changes as well.
“There’s nothing necessarily physical or expensive or even slow in the process of paradigm change. In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a falling of scales from eyes, a new way of seeing….
So how do you change paradigms? Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the seminal book about the great paradigm shifts of science, has a lot to say about that. In a nutshell, you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder and with assurance from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.”
That last sentence by Kuhn especially sticks in my mind: “You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.” To my mind–and keeping with the idea of paradigm change on a personal level–this implies that I probably shouldn’t spend too much time trying to affect the parts of me that are either strongly convinced of or strongly resistant to the need for change. So for example, if there’s a part of me that hates the meaninglessness of my job, it probably doesn’t really benefit by being fed a continued diet of “heh, heh, I can’t wait for that collapse to come…”. Similarly, the part of me that craves to tucker-down with a bag of chips for another few hours of World of Warcraft isn’t going to bow down gracefully when I try to explain to it I should instead go hook up the new water-collection barrel to the roof downspout for drip-irrigating the summer vegetable patch. The best bang for our buck is to work with the things that are “on the fence” so to speak–our inner robot that just automatically grabs those Indonesian-made jeans on sale at Wal-Mart even though I know I’ll have to pay for them with a credit card. But even then, even when I actually have the presence of mind to catch this robot in action, I don’t want to scold myself and scream “Bad Steven! No! No jeans for you!”…in fact I may well end-up buying them anyway. Regardless though, by the very act of questioning I’ll have observed something new about myself…for instance I might see what actually happens within me when I challenge my inner spoiled-child with his inbred cultural expectations of consumerism and undelayed gratification.
And perhaps…eventually…maybe after I’ve observed those reactions a few dozen times…I might suddenly discover that I have a completely different response upon seeing those jeans. Maybe I’ll find that I’m no longer shopping at Wal-Mart at all.
I also think it’s helpful for us to be aware that the primary reason why our situation looks so bad right now is simply because things are finally coming to a head. Ran Prieur phrased it quite perceptively a few weeks back: “as with almost every aspect of civilization, the system has no negative feedback mechanism except collapse.” In other words, the red flags and the alarms don’t work, and the definitive warning signs only come after it’s too late to act. Yet at the same time that so many unsustainable systems are crumbling, we can also observe a steadily growing response against this generalized, systemic corruption as well as the various domination-policies that characterize our Empire culture. These counter-movements are happening worldwide, and they’re happening because people on an individual level are becoming more aware and more informed (which perhaps is reason enough why the recent attack on Net Neutrality must be opposed). I won’t draw out any details about these counter-movements since that’s already a common theme on this website, but nevertheless we should remember that our over-stressed cultural fault-lines are both long and deep…and that means the demands we’re being called to meet are going to leave a lot of people feeling like they’ve been swept down-river without a paddle or even a canoe. Those who embrace these demands for culture change beforehand, however, will have at least a log to cling to.
We might also recognize that if we are becoming more aware of these critical issues as a society then that’s because we’re beginning to resist them as a society. It may not necessarily seem this way but there’s always a reciprocal action: the growing awareness and the growing friction we feel are corresponding forces. Right now this resistance is mostly internalized, but if it continues to grow then at some critical juncture that will no longer be the case.
And not to draw this discussion on longer than necessary, it’s also important to acknowledge the “plus” side of what’s happening. For instance we’re seeing a rapid progression of popular interest in a wide variety of “counter-cultural” movements–i.e. counter to the old-guard forces and ideologies of Empire culture. I can say for myself that five or more years ago I had never shopped at a Co-op, never bought organic on a regular basis, never even considered that I might NOT buy corporate-industrial food of one form or another. Now however my wife and I do all our grocery shopping at Co-ops, and we even get a large percentage of our food directly from Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) and local, organic, sustainable farms and dairies. I’ve come to strenuously avoid fast-food places and corporate restaurants. I never buy processed food or soda pop. In fact I don’t even have a microwave anymore. And I’ve actually come to love finding new local, independent businesses to patronize–even more than I used to enjoy finding cheap, bargain-sales at big box stores.
I didn’t “make” these changes happen. They came about “organically” if you will, as I started to become more and more interested in and aware of what was happening in my world and myself.
How many of you reading this had even heard of Permaculture say, five years ago? I hadn’t. Yet I recently spent a weekend at a work-period with a local permaculture organization–which was playing host to Australian perma-guru Geoff Lawton I might add. Five years ago I was confused and upset about the state of the world (I had just bailed-out of imploding tech stocks and was anxiously watching my “safe” oil/gas/energy utility company stocks inexplicably implode as well in the early fore-shadows of the Enron debacle). Now, however, I’ve become confident that permaculture theory partly represents a seminal groundwork for the coming revolution that’s simmering below the surface of popular consciousness (and I don’t invest in the financial markets at all anymore). If “I” changed over the last five years it was only because five years ago I started to seriously investigate this nagging inkling I had that there was something desperately wrong with our world. Others took heed of such inklings soon that I did, others only later. Many, many more are only just now starting to feel that something is amiss…
Again, I think the long-winded point I’m trying to work toward is this: I’ve discovered that as I become more aware of my situation I begin living a different way of life. And as I begin living a different way of life I simultaneously begin feeling my power to resist all the subversive forces in our modern culture which had previously left me feeling helpless and “deflated”. It happens in slow steps certainly, but those steps add-up. Also, I’m entering into a different “circle” of people, people who are themselves striving to live a different way of life.
Thus I find that I’m becoming much more sure of myself and the direction of my life, less driven by unsustainable and unsuitable ideals which make me doubt my self-worth, and I feel a more real sense of community than I’d felt when I was completely immersed in our consumer/success culture. In my experience then, greater awareness of all the things that are “dying right now” has actually helped me find a better ideal for which to live.
Since I’ve touched on permaculture, founder Bill Mollison’s experience might be instructive to close with. In a 2001 interview he admitted:
“I remember the Club of Rome report in 1967 which said that the deterioration of the environment was inevitable due to population growth and overconsumption of resources. After reading that, I thought, “People are so stupid and so destructive — we can do nothing for them.” So I withdrew from society. I thought I would leave and just sit on a hill and watch it collapse.
It took me about three weeks before I realized that I had to get back and fight. You know, you have to get out in order to want to get back in.”
Of course in Bill’s case he was able to process his disillusionment into a revolutionary direction very quickly, because he already possessed a vast background in sustainable living to draw upon. For the majority of the rest of us this process will be a little slower. But we can all come to equally revolutionary conclusions, even if ours don’t extend beyond the borders of our individual lives.