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Sacred Demise (review)

If you are familiar with author and ecopsychologist Carolyn Baker’s previous work, you know she makes no apologies for the doomer stance she developed since becoming aware of "the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Peak Oil, a fraudulent 2004 election, global warming, and at this writing, what appears to be full-blown economic meltdown."

Carolyn is firmly convinced that all these factors spell the collapse of industrial civilization. If you are not familiar with her work, you might take a deep breath before picking up her new book, Sacred Demise, Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization's Collapse.

Keep this background in mind as you peruse Carolyn's well written and thoughtful work. The book covers topics such as "What is Collapse," "Scarcity, Abundance, and Alternative Forms of Exchange," and "Soulsickness and Emotional Collapse". At the end of each chapter she adds questions to reflect on and blank pages with which to record your impressions. Carolyn is a psychotherapist of many year's standing as well as an adjunct professor of history, so these questions are right on target for those who are looking for emotional direction through the current cultural and environmental minefields.

I agree completely with Carolyn's diagnosis of western civilisation's consumerist trance as a condition that needs to be recognized, acknowledged, and broken through. Other writers such as David Korten and Joanna Macy also acknowledge this condition. Korten refers to it as "[being]...held captive to the ways of Empire by a cultural trance of our own creation maintained by stories that deny the higher possibilities of our human nature—including our capacities for compassion, cooperation, responsible self-direction, and self-organizing partnership."

Carolyn is dealing with strong medicine here that needs to be dished out sparingly and with warning labels. Reading this book is akin to entering the “dark night of the soul” spoken of by many Catholic spiritual masters. It is a rite of passage traversed by the spiritual seeker before achieving new levels of insight. In those days however, spiritual directors were available as guides to the novices. Nowadays Western cultures lack these resources, especially for those outside recognized religious communities.

Where I take issue with Carolyn is her premise that everyone needs to stare into the cold hard face of “industrial civilization’s collapse” before they can break out of our cultural trance or be capable of effective action. In her own words: "Sometimes I find myself unable to wrap my mind around the totality of what the collapse of civilization would actually mean. I know intellectually what losses it would entail, but when I really contemplate them, I feel my eyes glazing and my mind numbing".

David Holmgren's new book, Future Scenarios, on the other hands, talks about this very reaction as he discusses how divided the peak oil community is in response to his various future scenarios presented in his work. "In the ad hoc Internet community of peak-oil activism that has sprung up over the last few years the divide between the "doomers" and the "optimists" has been a notable one…Part of the process of moving beyond this simplistic and mostly counterproductive debate is to see some of the positive potentials that exist in energy descent scenarios." In David's words, what needs to happen is for people to feel empowered to find personal and community solutions to these issues, not to "trigger denial or depression."

I recommend Sacred Demise for the already initiated, to use Carolyn’s parlance. The book may be too strong for people encountering these issues for the first time. For them, I'd recommend David Korten's The Great Turning or Joanna Macy's Coming Back to Life. I also recommend Rob Hopkin’s The Transition Handbook for those wishing to engage in community action.

See Carolyn's website Speaking Truth to Power for her recent articles and links to her other books.

Sacred Demise is published by Universe Books.

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