Sunday, February 21, 2010

Once Awake: The Waking Up Syndrome Two Years Later

Two years ago, Linda Saltzman-Buzzell and I wrote “The Waking Up Syndrome.” It was published in Hope Dance magazine and reprinted in many other media, including a chapter in Linda’s book with Craig Chalquist, Ecotherapy, Healing with Nature in Mind. At that time only a small percentage of the US population was beginning wake up to the effects of peak oil, other natural resource depletion, climate change, and global economic instability. Most were unaware, in denial, or in a state of semi-consciousness. Since that time, however, these issues have had wide-spread coverage in both alternative and mainstream media. Even more compelling is that millions of people have begun to personally experience or know others who are personally experiencing the frightening implications of thee issues.

This is not to say that there aren’t huge segments of the population who remain “unawake.” There are ample individuals who discount the existence or significance of these phenomena. Their opinions and views also appear in the media with near equal regularity.
As the coordinator of the non-profit Transition Initiative in my community and a US Transition trainer who has consulted with other communities of “awakened” and involved individuals, I’ve noticed that the number of people who have awakened to the reality of these issues is clearly growing steadily. But I’ve also noticed that what they’re doing isn’t always like Linda and I projected in describing the Acceptance Stage.

Here are a variety of “post-awake” responses I’ve noticed since the article was written and some thoughts about their implications. I’m interested in whether you have noticed similar or other patterns.

Please note that people who are reacting in these ways are not discounting the existence, seriousness, or usually even the potential for constructive personal and collective responses. Also note that I see people moving in and out of these reactions.

Full- or Part-Time Gung Ho Activists.
I see a small but hearty and growing cadre of folks across the country actively engaged in undertaking on-going activities to directly address the challenges ahead in their lives and their communities. This is the reaction Linda and I wrote about as evidence of someone having come to a point of acceptance. They are busily preparing for a sustainable future and/or for surviving a collapsed culture. This is among their highest priorities on a daily basis and they devote every spare moment they have to this goal.

They are taking actions to change where they live, how they live, and the career they are in or will be in. They are organizing and participating with others in community- or neighborhood-based efforts such as Transition Initiatives, permaculture groups, co-housing arrangements, eco-villages, etc.

Many of them are focusing on practical, long-term efforts such as growing food, setting up gray water systems, and switching to renewable energy systems. Others are investing their time in writing, talking, planning, and/or teaching about what we need to be doing and how to do it.
Most activists I know are finding that doing what they need to be doing in their own lives and in their communities is highly challenging, more complex than imagined, and not something that is quickly achieved. Each effort requires a significant amount of their time, energy, and resources. But I find them to be generally of good spirits and highly dedicated.

Positive Thinkers.
Fully aware of what’s happening and what’s at stake, these folks may be making various positive changes in the way they live, i.e. conserving fuel, growing herbs, buying “green,” but they believe the primary action we need to be taking now is to hold a positive intention for the future we want to create, either personally or in group gatherings through prayer, meditation, or drumming groups. They believe it is important not to talk about the array of social, economic and environmental problems and difficulties presented by resource depletion, climate change, environmental degradation, etc. Their focus instead is on their intention for a positive future to manifest.

They too spend a significant amount of time devoted to these actions, often to the point of having little time to participate in the practical endeavors being carried out by the activists in their community. I’ve noticed that many activists believe positive thinkers are naive and feel frustrated by their unwillingness to “address the issues.” When positive thinkers attend activist gatherings they often invite the group to participate in envisioning activities. Activists usually oblige but think the most important matters lie in taking practical action.

These two approaches seem to dovetail more effectively in some communities than others. This is particularly true where there is a “heart and soul” component to activist endeavors. In some communities, though, there is a considerable gulf between these orientations, with the activists considering positive thinkers to be a “touchy-feely” distraction that puts off and risks marginalizing serious mainstream efforts toward widespread adoption of sustainability.

Economically and Otherwise Distracted.
These folks, though aware of what’s at hand, find the circumstances of daily life require 100% of their time, energy, and resources. Some are early casualties of the very problems we’ve awakened to. They’re caught, as Dmitry Orlov predicted some would be, in the very circumstances we are working to prepare for. They are not always aware of the relationship between their demanding circumstances and these issues, but they are indeed related, i.e. job loss, foreclosures, bankruptcy, and consequences of unaffordable health care costs for themselves or loved ones.

Most of these folks became activists after waking up, but now they are simply engulfed in the challenges of making it day-to-day. They may be juggling multiple jobs or fruitlessly searching for a job, grappling with creditors, scraping by on unemployment or Social Security benefits, suffering from the woes of aging without adequate income, etc. This leaves them with no time or resources to work for a sustainable future, only for a survivable present.

Sometimes the distractions are unrelated or only tangentially related to the issues we’re discussing. They or a loved on may have developed a life-threatening illness. Their marriage may have fallen apart. Their children or aging parents may be facing problems that require their primary energy.

In my private practice I am seeing a definite escalation of both the fallout and the seriousness of day-to-day problems we tend to typically encounter in our overly complex society.

Since such distractions are only going to increase, it becomes important for activists to arrange support structures for these individuals or at least embrace their lapses in participation with empathy and tolerance Their numbers will be increasing and most any activist could find him or herself in a similar situation at any point. But I’ve noticed some activists have little tolerance for those who allow distractions to pull them away from participating in the communities transition tasks. They argue that “If these people would only do ..., or would have done ...” then they wouldn’t be having these problems. Most likely this response arises, when it does, from activists who have not yet been faced with any these problems or from their having awakened sooner and thereby had more time and resources to simplify their lives, thereby taking the difficulties we’re facing in stride more easily.

I believe we to rise above such reactions, though, because if we respond with understanding during times of hardship for our distracted comrades, they may well be back when the distracting issues have passed or resolved.

Burned Out, Numbed Out.
These folks are taking a break. I’ve encountered a number of activists who slowly burn out from the scope of the efforts required to make personal and community changes. They encounter financial limitations to their plans, dissension and competition among or within their community groups, barriers defined by local regulations and codes, burnout of other volunteers, leaving them with more responsibility than they bargained for, etc. They still believe the issues we face are as important and urgent as ever, or even more so, but they’re pulling back from their involvement, choosing to do things that refresh and renew their energy and enthusiasm for life.

Once again I’ve noticed a lack of tolerance among some activists for such folks’ need to pull back. I’ve heard derogatory comments such as “What they’re doing is no different that those who are causing the problems.” I can understand such angry reactions and resentment. Most likely they arise from activists who are also tired of the hassles and roadblocks, but find that as the Numbed Out drop out, they are left with still greater responsibilities for the community tasks at hand.

Again from my experience, though, I believe it is vital that activists summon up tolerance and acceptance for their burned out colleagues and give them a break. If we do, most likely they too will come back once they’ve revived themselves with a little R&R, leaving a breather for those who have shouldered the work in the meantime. In fact I believe we all need to allow ourselves time to renew and energize, or we will burn out at well, or at the very least become less effective.

I’ve noticed some communities routinely set aside time for fun and celebration and in these groups fewer folks get burned out or numbed out. Still activists in some communities aver that we don’t have the time or energy for such “frivolity,” and they may be right, so again tolerance is the best reaction for them as well. . However, when we look to the natural world for examples and guidance, we see that rest and rejuvenation are part of the natural cycles that lead to the sustainability we claim to seek

Moving On.
These folks believe they have done what they can and they are getting on to the next things on their agendas. They may have made:

• An array of changes within their homes and daily habits like switching to low-energy light bulbs, caulking their windows, or recycling their waste, consuming less, or using their own cloth bags when their shop.
• Large-scale investments such a buying a high-gas mileage car, moving to a smaller home, composting waste, or growing produce in the back yard,
• Regular contributions to save the seals and other environmental causes.

Generally they become fully engaged in a new cause or interest, a new line of work, another community or church activity, a new marriage, a first grand baby, etc. Sometimes the new interests are a spin off or result of their involvement in a local initiative. Suddenly undertaking their new activities leaves them with no spar time or energy for being involved in other steps.

A real estate agent, for example, may decide to start a green cleaning service. An ER nurse may volunteer to organize a Meals on Wheels program in a neighborhood where none exists. An artist may develop an arts program in the local schools that deals with healing nature. In such cases, these individuals don't consider their new endeavor as pulling out to “do your own thing.” They see it as their part in the larger effort. Other activists who are working on joint efforts may see this differently, though.

I’m surprised at how many people I meet recently who seem fully aware of what we face yet have simply resigned themselves to the catastrophe they see coming and are proceeding with daily life as usual. One neighbor told me recently for example, “I’m glad you are doing what you are here in our community, but frankly I don’t see any hope.” A colleague in an online group I belong to wrote “I no longer think there's much point in personal action. There will simply be too little of this to make a significant difference.”

In our local initiative we keep these individuals on our e-mail lists if they’re willing and find that they will come to certain programs or join in some activities. Often they have considerable valuable expertise (probably part of why they feel as their do), and may be quite willing to contribute when asked to help on specific projects.

Totally Overwhelmed and Checking Out.
I have not yet encountered people who are reacting in this way, but I have a foreboding that there are some and will be more who are suffering from serious mental illnesses as a result of the pressures and difficulties we’re facing, including a rise in suicide. To quote from the February NASW News:

“Several major news stories have shed light on a disturbing trend: Suicide rates in some regions have spiked, and the economic recession is being cited as a factor. While national statistics on suicide lag by three to four years, news sources have conducted their own investigations about the topic. The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, MSNBC and Business Week have published stories in the past year highlighting local data and calls for more support for the newly unemployed or those facing financial devastation.”

Dmitry Orlov has spoken of this reaction as inevitable, but this trend creates special challenges for local initiatives. The challenges presented by the other reactions I've mentioned already strain the energies and try the patience of activists.

In response to these challenges, on the one hand I have heard from those who say, "Why rescue those who fall by the way side when we have to such important tasks ahead?" I’ve heard some activists say "Dealing with the mental health profession is a waste of time; they are involved in creating and perpetuating the problem." While that may sadly be true at times, many others both from within and outside the profession agree that we can’t afford very many such casualties. They believe we need a populace with mental resilience if we are to have local resilience. For them educating and involving mental health professionals who themselves are awake and aware of the need for change instead of supporting the status quo could ease this problem greatly. We are fortunate to have such a group of professionals in our local initiative and are working to build a skilled and prepared mental health infrastructure.

Again I also see that having a Heart and Soul aspect of our local efforts can help prevent the overwhelm and accompanying isolation that can lead to more severe emotional and mental problems as circumstances become more challenging yet.

Summary Questions
As I write this I am aware that it is not only a reflection of what I’ve seen “post wake-up,” but also a plea for tolerance and understanding within our movement. I've concluded that tolerance, not oil, is the lubricant that sustains a community.

To facilitate tolerance, however, Carolyn Baker of Speaking Truth to Power points out that greater dialog is needed. Of course, those who are still sleeping and those who are awakened but needing for their own reasons to step away are less likely to engage in dialog right now, so we activists who are highly motivated most likely need to be the ones to initiate such dialog.

So ... I am curious. Have you seen reactions like this? Do you see others? Do you agree about the role and importance of tolerance? How do we differentiate tolerance from apathy and get beyond viewing it as putting up with? How do we move tolerance to compassion and what is the compassionate response to our awakened brethren? Might there be interest in and an arena where we could have a discussion of such questions among ourselves? Read more!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Sacred Demise: A Book Review

Carolyn Baker's newly released book Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Collapse is the first book devoted entirely to the psychological and spiritual aspects of today eco-nomic challenges. I am eager to recommend it to all helping professionals and others wanting to deal with the difficult inner work involved in the transition that's taking place around us whether we are embracing it, fighting it, or denying it.
Author, adjunct professor in history and psychology and creator of the Speaking Truth to Power website, Baker draws on a wide variety of traditions and backgrounds in crafting her thoughts on this vital subject and includes many heartfelt insights she has gained from her personal inner journey into the troubled waters of our time, never flinching to delve into its hard truths and our role in the challenges ahead.
As a practitioner you may not agree with particular points in her book and you may find sections emotionally disturbing, even difficult to read. But the significance of this book is that Carolyn lays bare the issues we must confront in ourselves and help our clients to confront if we are to find the inner equanimity needed to address the future with the confidence, wisdom, creativity, and effective action that is demanded of us.

I see reading this book as a doorway to the inner reflection we each need to do and help our clients to do.

Each chapter actually concludes with a Reflection and a blank page for Notes. I found these to be not only personally valuable but also useful tools for sharing with clients.
Because I had the honor of writing the Forward to this book, instead of describing its contents in more detail, I invite you to read the Forward. Then I hope you will take the opportunity to read Sacred Demise. I will look forward to your thoughts and comments, both as someone who faces these issues yourself and as someone who will be on the front lines of helping others.
For those for whom it will be helpful, I have created 6-hours online Continuing Education (CEU) self-study course for this book with an accompanying Course Guide. It's available for an introductory price of $20 (plus the cost of the book, which can be purchased separately through
amazon or other sources either in print or as an e-book). Contact me if you would be interested in receiving these CEU's.
To a sane and sustainable future.

Sarah Edwards Read more!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Eco-Anxiety: Are You Encountering the Negativity Challenge?

I've noticed a common challenge in talking with my spiritually-oriented friends, colleagues, and clients about the needs for addressing the psychological aspects the environmental, economic, and psychological aspects of climate change and resource depletion. They consider such topics to be negative thoughts they don't want to contribute to.
I was discussing this conundrum with my friend and colleague Carolyn Baker because her excellent book, Sacred Demise, for which I wrote the forward, is the first book that addresses the inner, spiritual aspects of these very real, live-changing threats we're facing. Following our conversation she wrote a most thought-provoking essay on this issue for distribution.
I would very much like to know your thoughts, both to the topic and to Carolyne's response. Are you experiencing this kind of response from in your spiritually-oriented friends, colleagues, and clients? How do you approach it?
Soon I look forward to doing a review of Carolyn's book here on the blog. It is an invaluable resource for those of us who are helping with the Inner Work of Transition to a Sustainable Future.

by Carolyn Baker, Wednesday, 06 May 2009

There is no coming to consciousness without pain.
~Carl Jung~

Recently a friend told me that she had been talking up my book Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization's Collapse and suggesting to friends who are aware of collapse that they read it. On several occasions the response was, "Well, I don't want to engage in ‘negative thinking'. I'd rather keep a positive attitude and stay hopeful in the face of what's going in on the world." When I heard this, I smiled inside because this perspective in particular prompted me to write the book. One of my intentions in doing so was to help heal the false assumption that looking honestly at the end of the world as we have known it is synonymous with wallowing in negativity.
First, let me begin by assuring the reader that I do not recommend staring down collapse 24-7. Initially, admitting the reality of collapse is frightening and disheartening. People at first tend to become overwhelmed with fear or hopelessness or both. At that point, we can do one of two things: We can back off and process the facts in bits and pieces, interspersing doing so with living our everyday lives, doing things we enjoy with people we love, and savoring everything in life that nourishes us. Or, we can immediately engage one or more defense mechanisms in order to assuage our fear and cognitive dissonance.
The defense mechanism most frequently employed is denial, and unfortunately, some forms of spirituality are particularly useful in fostering denial because inherent in them is the assumption that accepting the demise of industrial civilization will drag one down into permanent depression, anger, hopelessness, or despair. While it is true that when first acknowledging collapse, one might experience such feelings, this does not guarantee that one must choose to take up residence in dark feelings, redecorate, change one's address, and permanently reside there.
I wrote Sacred Demise from the perspective of exactly the opposite experience. Did I feel negative feelings when first learning about collapse and its implications? Of course. Do I still have moments when negative feelings return and cloud what was an-otherwise normal day? Absolutely. But for me, acknowledging and preparing for collapse has been a sea-change in every aspect of my life, which includes a full palette of emotional and spiritual colors and hues. It has indeed made me more fully human and alive.
Rather than dragging me down into depression and despair, my acceptance of what is, has liberated me both emotionally and spiritually. As I have released false hopes of "fixing" civilization cosmetically or creating a mass consciousness change that might engender mass movements, I have gained much more energy for my work and for preparation for the daunting days ahead. In other words, I have gained a visceral understanding of "crisis as opportunity"-a cliché which I bandied about earlier in my life but could not fully appreciate until I allowed myself to deeply understand collapse and its ramifications.
Last month, Oregon Peak Oil researcher and blogger, Jan Lundberg, put out a call to his readers to respond on three questions regarding collapse:
What we are acting toward? What main outcome might we be looking forward to?
What do we relish leaving behind, as collapse begins or as it will be intensified?
What do we not want to leave behind unresolved; or, what needs to be done before it's too late to accomplish it?
This week, Culture Change published the results of the survey which I strongly encourage everyone to read. Here are a few responses:

• I look forward to the world breaking up "into small colonies of the saved" (Robert Bly). I look forward to a simpler, less neurotic life for me and my children. I would like to think that my children, while their chances of survival may be lower, their chances of happiness will be higher.
• The central change I would like to see is abandonment of the addictive, frenzied, exploitative American way of life in favor of a tribal, cooperative, relaxed way of life that puts responsibility toward other species and the Earth, as well as other human beings, first.
• An authentic life that is centered around people and not things. Revival of things spiritual and not material.
• Learning how to live with each other and within the larger community of our bioregions and ecosystems in a way that is intimate, honest, humble, and humanly and ecologically sustainable. That includes restoring viable community life, economic and ecological relationships and systems - living systems.

While none of us knows exactly how the collapse of civilization [as we know it]will unfold and while it is a process -- sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant -- whose beginning, middle, and end are and will be difficult to discern, the responses to Lundberg's questions are encouraging. First, they let me know that I'm not alone and that there are many more individuals than I could have imagined who are looking at collapse with the same optimism -and fear- that I feel when I contemplate it. Moreover, what I hear in these responses is not "negativity" but a deep longing for the possibility of living lives in harmony with all of the earth community and thereby experiencing the fullness of our humanity.
In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Sigmund Freud cultivated a very dark perception of humanity as he assessed the baser instincts largely repressed in the human unconscious. His pupil who became the famous Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, acknowledged the dark side of humanity which drove Freud to utter despair but unlike Freud, Jung came to believe that the dark side was a necessary ally in transforming human consciousness.
Jung spent decades studying myriad spiritual teachers, mythologies, and archetypes of the unconscious, and championed the sacred in nature and in the human psyche; however, Jung insisted that, "We must beware of thinking of good and evil as absolute opposites. The criterion of ethical action can no longer consist in the simple view that good has the force of a categorical imperative, while so-called evil can resolutely be shunned. Recognition of the reality of evil necessarily relativizes the good, and the evil likewise, converting both into halves of a paradoxical whole."
In other words, according to Jung, what we call "good" and "evil" need each other and in our binary thinking are opposite poles which in reality comprise the whole of the human experience; one needs the other for completion, and particularly for the transformation of consciousness. This is why Jung adamantly declared that "Mental illness is the avoidance of suffering." He was not referring to meaningless anguish but suffering which we endeavor to make sense of so that our genuine human purpose may be revealed to us.
In Sacred Demise, I repeatedly return to the question: Who do we want to be in the face of collapse? My friend Joanna Gabriel in a wonderful 2007 interview with Peak Moment TV beautifully articulates the question "Who Am I In A Post-Petroleum World". We both concur that these are the ultimate questions that collapse is inviting us to address in our individual lives and in our communities. I believe that it is futile to attempt to do so unless we are willing to struggle with all of the human emotions that emerge as we choose to stop avoiding the issue of collapse and with the support of trusted others, look at it honestly, welcoming it as a wise teacher and ally.
Sacred Demise painstakingly guides the reader in opening to the process of initiation that collapse is foisting upon us. The ancients and all traditional peoples know that without initiations, humans will not develop into mature, whole beings. In such cultures, it would be almost unheard of for anyone to speak of "wanting to avoid negativity" because all experiences and feelings are honored as necessary aspects of the human condition, without which humans cannot become fully conscious.
Among other things, collapse is asking us to grow up, to become initiated elders and thereby guide humanity in a revolutionary new direction. Near the end of Sacred Demise, I include an excerpt from a comment a reader of my website, Truth to Power, emailed me last year. He wrote:

I, for one, would find much more meaning from
putting food on the table that is truly needed and
sustaining rather than taken for granted. Food
that I raised or killed myself, or we ourselves,
or my neighbor did, and I bartered with him
for it. Much more so than the meaning Empire
tells me what I am supposed to get from sitting
here in my cubicle (my penultimate day today!)
rearranging little electronic blips in exchange for
money, which I am then supposed to exchange
not only for my sustenance, but also for all sorts
of diversions, to make me forget how meaningless
it all is.
I, for one, will find consolation in knowing
my neighbors - and in knowing that they are
there for me as I am for them, rather than living
amidst strangers, as most all of us do now. I will
find consolation in knowing that my ecological
footprint does not extend beyond my gaze.
That the things I consume do not cause death
and destruction beyond my ability to see and
internalize, rather than out of sight and mind as
now, and so much larger than any being could
ever have a ‘right' to.
I, for one, will find purpose in working closely
and cooperatively and communally with those
around me to provide our own sustenance,
comforts such as they may be, and entertainments
as time allows.
I have no illusions that life post-collapse will be
idyllic, nor that the transition will be anything
but ugly. But neither shall I miss that which
is dying - the dizzying complexity of our oil-drenched
lifestyles, a thousand channels of
nothing worth watching, mega-malls, motor
sports (how many kinds of insane are those!?!),
celebrities, glitter, growth, more, faster, bigger,
keep up with the Joneses but ignore the
sweatshops and the dying ecosystems, consume,
medicate, live large... then die. Where is one to
find a sense of purpose in all of that?
Whether one considers oneself "spiritual", atheist, agnostic, religious, or eternally skeptical, the task of accepting collapse and seizing the myriad opportunities it presents, is sacred work. As for me, nothing in my life has proven more positive or powerful.

Carolyn Baker, Ph.D., is the author of Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization's Collapse (2009 IUniverse). She manages the Truth to Power website at and has also authored U.S. History Uncensored: What Your High School Textbook Didn't Tell You.
You can order Sacred Demise here. Read book foreword at Read more!