Love in the Age of Ecological Apocalypse: Cultivating the Relationships We Need to Thrive
By Carolyn Baker
229 pp. North Atlantic Books – Mar. 2015. $16.95.
Dr. Carolyn Baker is a profound thinker on the predicament of modern industrial civilization who comes at the subject from an invaluable perspective. Whereas many of her contemporaries focus only on the logistical details of collapse preparation, she draws on a background in psychology and psychotherapy to address how we should prepare emotionally and spiritually for what is ahead. Since she first became aware of our resources crisis well over a decade ago, she has devoted her life to helping others make what she calls the "inner transition." She’s written books, spoken internationally, conducted workshops, life coached, hosted a radio show and otherwise made herself an indispensable resource to those seeking guidance through the terrain of inner transition.
In her latest book, titled Love in the Age of Ecological Apocalypse, Baker surveys 16 relationships that she’s found to be basic to human well-being but sorely in need of tending right now. They range from the obvious examples of romantic love, friendship and parent-child relationships, to the links that connect humans to all other life forms and the ties each person has to the “psychic darkness” of his or her inner shadow (to use terms from Jungian psychology). Perhaps the best indication of how broadly Baker defines love relationships is an epigraph at the beginning of the book attributed to theologian and author Father Richard Rohr: “All of creation is relationship.”
Even so, the type of relationship most people will think of when they first pick up the book is that between romantic partners. The cover image, which shows a young man and woman embracing tightly as they survey a bleak, smoking industrial landscape, suggests a sense of solace in the company of a significant other. Thus it’s appropriate that the first chapter deals with loving, living and preparing with a life partner. Specifically, it is about doing these things with a reluctant partner.
Baker has a great deal of wisdom when it comes to this all-too-familiar dilemma for collapse preppers and those who love them. She’s helped many couples in this plight either work it out or realize that it can’t be resolved, so she knows how agonizing it is for both parties. The prepping partner often feels belittled by his or her non-prepping partner, while the non-prepper is embarrassed by the prepper’s seemingly kooky behavior, and can often feel lonely and neglected. The only way to make progress in addressing the situation is for each person to refrain from imposing his or her viewpoint on the other (a futile effort) and instead work on communicating emotions. In her discussion of this process, Baker provides sample scripts and exercises that she’s assigned to couples in therapy.
The second type of relationship examined is that between parents and their children. Baker admits that her work has been mostly with adults, but says she’s still been able to glean valuable insight into how to introduce children to collapse-related topics through talking with concerned parents. Based on these conversations, as well as research she’s done, she has come up with guidelines tailored to different age groups. One fact I found particularly interesting is the tendency of elders to underestimate young people’s ability to handle knowledge of harsh realities. Baker quotes one father to the effect that children can deal with serious issues much better than we think they can, and that when we discuss such things with them, it makes them feel we trust them.
The author is a fount of firsthand knowledge on tending relationships with others in a community. Having spent years coaching collapse preppers on cultivating community, and on forming intentional communities in which to weather crisis, she knows well the work required. (For the purposes of her discussion, Baker defines community as “trusted others living in the same vicinity or region.”) Baker sagely advises that when first trying to interest fellow community members in preparation efforts, it’s best not to talk about peak oil, climate change or any of the other abstract dimensions to our crisis, since these are divisive issues that many people will be unwilling to consider. Instead, try beginning a dialog about how everyone might, say, deal with an emergency situation or reap the economic benefits of an all-solar-powered neighborhood.
In addition to its futility, there’s another reason why trying to impose one’s views about collapse onto others is a waste of time: It isn’t necessary. If you’re working to solarize your neighborhood or shift its food supply to local, organic consumption, for example, you don’t need everyone involved to agree that without these measures there will be catastrophic electricity and food shortages. You just need to demonstrate what each person has to gain from the effort. Many participants will doubtless be motivated simply by a desire to break their reliance on an aging, overburdened power grid or to eat food free of toxic pesticides, but in the process they’ll unwittingly be helping ready the community for the inevitable descent.
The relationships examined so far are ones that most people will be able to relate to easily. Less obvious relationships covered by Baker include those with our bodies, our creative souls, the food and other resources we consume, the beauty around us and the present moment. Baker also looks at human-animal attachments and how people in industrial society relate to loss and grief. On this last front, she argues that our tendency to keep sorrow private has made us a culture suffering from “congestive heart failure,” in that our pent-up emotion reduces our capacity for caring and compassion.
Coming to terms with one’s mortality is, of course, a classic manifestation of grief, and Baker contends that this is the task now before us as a species facing the prospect of its own near-term extinction (NTE). The case for NTE, driven by runaway climate change, has grown overwhelming in recent years, prompting Baker to recommend the adoption of an “attitude of hospice” in which to prepare for the final phase of our collective earthly existence. Just as many hospice patients report living the most precious parts of their lives at the very end, so too might we all discover unprecedented meaning as we cross over into our mutual abyss.
A longtime scholar of Jungian psychology, Baker draws on Jung’s notion of the human shadow in much of her work, including this book. She sums up the shadow as “any part of ourselves we say is not me. We look at an addict and say, ‘That’s not me,’ refusing to recognize that some part of us is or could become an addict.” For Baker, getting in touch with one’s inner shadow is a crucial part of maintaining harmonious relationships in the external world. The process can be likened to cultivating the internal community within the psyche so as to be better prepared for engaging with the outside community. Among the reasons why shadow work is important is that it makes us less apt to project the dark aspects of ourselves onto others and helps ward against harm from those who may have duplicitous motives—i.e., “shady” parts to their character that would go unnoticed without careful attention to the shadow world.
This book contains many proofs for Baker’s tenet that inner work is as important as outer work when preparing for collapse, but one in particular is my favorite. It’s an excerpt in which Baker reveals that while her methods have been called “too touchy-feely,” the same people who issue this dismissal often come back to her for help when their efforts to do things by other means have failed. For example, people who have disregarded her advice about improving their interpersonal skills have lived to regret it when intentional communities they’ve attempted to start have come to grief because of communication and conflict resolution issues.
A note is in order on the use of the word apocalypse in the book’s title. Today, when people see this word, they usually think of the countless end time scenarios depicted in doomsday films. However, Baker uses the term in its original sense: a disclosure of something previously hidden. She believes we’re approaching a rite of passage that will reveal to us our true place in nature, and perhaps even transform us into a new breed of human being. The “Enlightenment Enculturation” that has tricked us into thinking we’re separate from nature, by emphasizing logic over intuition and objectifying living systems as “resources,” will give way to a truly enlightened perspective. This new outlook will be far more in keeping with the beliefs of indigenous cultures around the world that view all living beings as connected.
My one criticism of Love in the Age of Ecological Apocalypse is that its cover undersells it. The image of two young lovers huddling together amidst calamity is a powerful one, to be sure, but it also invites the misconception that the book deals solely with romantic love. As this review has shown, Baker’s focus is vastly more encompassing. Still, I hardly know what would be a better image, and anyway this is a minor quibble with an otherwise insightful and highly accessible book.