As the work I do circulates around the nation and the world, I frequently encounter resistance to the use of the word “collapse” to describe the unprecedented changes that humans and the earth community is now experiencing. Many people insist that we should focus only on “Transition” and the “Great Turning” because these words make more bearable and palatable the challenges of present and future time. The word collapse, they argue, should be ditched.
I disagree and feel adamant about using the term for a number of reasons. In the first place, I am an historian, and as I endeavor to make sense of human history, I notice that monumental changes do not occur in one fell swoop, but over time through a variety of stages. Personally, I am deeply involved in the Transition movement, and I am also strongly aligned philosophically with individuals such as Joanna Macy and David Korten who frequently use the words Great Turning. I could not agree more that in the larger scheme of the unprecedented changes we are navigating, a Great Turning is indeed occurring. However, I believe that it is crucial to hold both the larger picture and the current predicament in our consciousness simultaneously in order to remain effectively present in this moment, as well as in a state of preparation and anticipation for a more redemptive future.
What is more, the Great Turning/Transition is a process, and like all processes, each stage is important. While it is tempting to minimize the stages in favor of our natural human longing for the desirable end result, we may actually jeopardize our appreciation of the destination by refusing to be present with each segment of the journey. The stage in which we happen to find ourselves at this present moment is the collapse of every institution within industrial civilization. I challenge anyone reading these words to give an example of one institution that is not in a state of obvious, irrevocable decline. While in the larger scheme of things, we are in Transition and also experiencing a Great Turning, we are profoundly in the early stages of a shattering unraveling such as our planet has never experienced in human history. That must not be minimized.
In addition, inhabitants of industrial civilization who have not yet understood its consequences seem particularly averse to the word “collapse”. Unlike millions of indigenous and dispossessed peoples throughout the world who have been unconscionably devastated by it, their identities remain invested in the false security that it promises and the hope that the next two or three decades will somehow deliver an extension of what life in present time is like. Therefore, I believe that coming to terms with the reality of myriad, ubiquitous forms of collapse in the first decade of this century is imperative. Long term, a great turning is occurring, and we are in transition, yet we have only to observe the breathtaking changes that have transpired in the past three years to notice an undeniable unraveling of this civilization. A collapse by any other name is nevertheless a collapse.
Within the human psyche reside many themes, including death and rebirth. The two always travel together without exception because both are integral aspects of the human story. Attempt to minimize or eliminate one, and you invariably minimize or distort the other. We all wish to be “in” the later stages of the Great Turning, but we aren’t, period. We are where we are, and where we are is painful, sad, frightening, enraging, uncertain, and yes, dark. Who would not wish to be basking in the light of the journey’s end or near-end? Who would not prefer to look in the rear view mirror (oops, I use an expression from pre-Peak Oil days) and see clearly that we have come through the ordeal, and we are now on the other side of it–free to live out the new paradigm in all of its promise? We can hardly contain our elation as we contemplate that possibility, right?
But we are not in that stage of the journey yet; we have just begun. Our work now is to be present with what is, even as we hold the larger vision in our hearts. To be present means to be willing to look, and the beautiful thing about being present in this moment is that we can utilize all of the qualities of our deliciously imagined future to buoy us in the here and now. In fact, as I emphasize repeatedly in Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse, without savoring and practicing those attributes moment to moment, we cannot endure the future emotionally or spiritually.
Notice I said cannot. I am profoundly frightened for the numbers of people I meet who are highly collapse-aware, but who are doing nothing to prepare emotionally and spiritually. Without that preparation, they are extremely vulnerable to breaking down; with it, they are more likely to break through.
The proper response to death is respect and ritual. Respect literally means “to look again.” When people die, we review their lives and renew our appreciation for their contributions and accomplishments. We create rituals to honor those and to express our gratitude for their presence in our lives. Ritual simply means “to fit together” which is to say, we reconnect the broken, separated pieces and in doing so attempt to find meaning in the experience. Given the Great American Death Phobia, this culture is particularly challenged in its capacity to respect death as a part of life and find meaning in it. I believe this may be the principal reason for resistance to words like collapse or unraveling.
What is most challenging for us to hold in the throes of the magnitude of the current oil spill, in the face of being daily deluged with increasingly frightening information about climate change, witnessing around us the beginning of the obliteration of world financial markets and possibly the end of money as we have known it, witnessing the extinction of species at previously unimaginable rates, finding ourselves surrounded with unrelenting natural disasters-this, all of this IS the Great Turning. And at the same time, in this moment, it also IS the collapse of industrial civilization.
Who would not want to be reveling in rebirth? Yet rebirth does not, cannot occur, without death. In present time we may feel marinated in death as its ubiquitous presence threatens to overwhelm us. It is as if we are being asked to walk through a war zone, witnessing around us the fallen everywhere and not knowing if we ourselves will survive. And we my wonder, why can’t we just get to the other side and as Thomas Paine said, “begin the world all over again”?
It may be that our species, tortured and toxified by industrial civilization as it has been, is incapable of beginning the world all over again without having lived through the ghastly consequences of what unprecedented growth and disconnection from the earth invariably produce. Perhaps we need this death in order to mould, shape, treasure, and protect the new life we ache to create.
In present time, what we can do with the unraveling is honor and respect what everything that is dying has given us. We can creatively construct rituals that erupt out of our hearts and out of the earth, acknowledging what the oceans, the land, the animals, and all other treasures of this beautiful planet have provided. We can thank and bless them, and we can invite our loved ones to join and co-create rituals with us.
Above all, it appears that we are being asked to allow our old way of life to die. Something in us is dying as we walk through the war zone. Something in us is dying with maybe as much as 100,000 gallons of oil being released daily into the Gulf of Mexico, now slithering into the loop current of the Atlantic Ocean. Something in us is dying with all the life that this cataclysm is extinguishing. Perhaps we need that death in us in order to unequivocally grasp in every cell of our bodies that disconnection, endless growth, competition, and entitlement kill everything in the universe. Perhaps humanity requires devastation of this magnitude in order to become a new kind of species-the kind of species that will never again allow such madness to prevail on this planet.
A very old myth written in myriad versions in ancient texts may be instructive in this collapse/transition/Great Turning journey, namely, the story of our old friend Noah who was instructed to build a lifeboat. Storyteller and author Michael Meade, in his latest book The World Behind The World, offers a timely, poetic appreciation of Noah’s mission and ours:
The problem wasn’t that the end of the world had come; rather the issue was how to act when it seemed that way. Secretly, each of us is a Noah sent on a distinct and seemingly foolish errand that can help the world as well as fulfill us….Noah stands for the timeless dreamer in the human soul who knows what to do when the floods of change gather and the sense of dissolution grows. (102, 120)
I do not wish to imply that we cannot experience joy or celebration until the Great Turning is complete. Even in the face of horror, we can have moments of humor, play, and elation. Our vision of a “greatly turned” humanity can sustain and inspire us, producing periods of unprecedented community and conviviality in the here and now. The turning is happening, and the collapsing of a way of life that does not work is a pivotal piece in the process. In fact, accepting the natural process of collapse as the first step in the Great Turning is profoundly liberating and empowering.
As always, the poets say it better than prose, especially the mystical poets who catapult our minds to the depths then propel us back up into clear-eyed, laser awareness. So often when they speak of love, they are not referring to human love or romance, but to the soul and the unbounded freedom our intimacy with it generously offers us. Within the cacophony of civilization’s demise, Rumi whispers:
Inside this new love, die
Your way begins on the other side
Become the sky
Take an axe to the prison wall
Walk out like someone suddenly
born into colour
Do it now
You’re covered with thick cloud
Slide out the side.
Die, and be quiet
Quietness is the surest sign
that you have died
Your old life was a frantic running
The speechless full moon comes out now.
Transition, Great Turning, Collapse? The words matter and don’t matter at the same time. It’s all about being fully present where we are while holding the vision of being somewhere incomparably different.