North Atlantic Books, 2013, pbk, 208pp
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
There is something very refreshing in the directness with which Carolyn Baker approaches the theme of this timely book about the multiple environmental and economic crises we humans currently face. She does not sugar the pill: …while I believe that should any of our species survive, we will move through the era of collapse into an era of Transition and Great Turning, our inexorable reality in this moment is one of contraction, decline and demise. Industrial civilization is collapsing.
Having recently suffered her own, personal health crisis, Baker likens what is happening on our planet to a health crisis writ large. Therefore, she says, the coping mechanisms we need are similar. Like any life-threatening illness in the microcosm, any collapse demands our full attention and committed focus, not to the exclusion of the lighter aspects of life—moments of conviviality, fun, joy and play—but alongside them. Every form of collapse is a glaring indicator that what we have been doing is not working and will ultimately lead to extinction. In the macrocosm, an unravelling of an entire civilization and the way of life we have known since birth is a stellar opportunity to practice, as the poet Rumi instructs us, ‘dying before we die.’ The ultimate meaning to be discovered in that process is not the finality of death but the rebirth that wants to happen.
Physical preparation, i.e. establishing local and domestic supply chains for the necessities of life such as water, food and electricity, creating transition-type communities, stockpiling materials—all this is a necessary part of the process of facing up to the realities of climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation and all the rest. But that sort of preparation alone is not enough. We Western humans, with very few exceptions, have not only become accustomed to the physical softness of our modern, push-button life but the majority of us have little experience of coping, emotionally, with large-scale chaos. We need to stop hiding in denial, see and accept what is happening to us, understand the dynamics of this ‘collapse-Transition-Great Turning saga’ as Baker calls it, and equip ourselves with the right psychospiritual skill-set to face into it. This book’s aim is to help us make a good start on that process of acceptance and self-preparation and I think it fulfils that task extremely well.
In a collapsing world, it is no good surviving physically unless we can also survive—and help each other survive—emotionally and spiritually also, and for many of us this will require some effort and some rapid learning. For instance, in order to master the skills of working co-operatively in small groups we must set aside our egoic, individualist ways and replace our debt mentality and sense of entitlement with a sense of humility and gratitude and an ethos of interdependence with each other and all of Nature.
We need to develop the emotional resilience to deal with trauma, the willingness to listen to each others’ stories and the intellectual ability to embrace paradox and master the art of ‘both/and’ thinking so that we can simultaneously embrace the dark night we are entering and hold the vision of a green and light-filled future. Most importantly, if we are to remain grounded in a time of turbulence we must live fully in our animal bodies and learn effective techniques of self-soothing, centring and mindfulness.
The first two-thirds of the book describe and explain, in 109 easy-to-read, wisdom-packed pages, the psycho-spiritual preparations that need to be made for the collapse that has already begun, and why, even though the collapse may be a long, slow process, it is so vital that we start making them. The last third consists of a carefully-chosen set of 52 weekly ‘meditations’ – in the sense of quotes and thoughts to be pondered upon – all geared towards helping us deal with the collapse of our old world whilst also saving and guarding the seeds we hope to plant in the new one that will—we hope—eventually rise from the ruins.