Reflections On Civilization, with Carolyn Baker

carolyn_bakerA few months ago, I struck up an online friendship with the acclaimed author and academic Carolyn Baker. It was clear that we were both writing about similar things, but I didn’t realise quite how similar until I had the fortunate opportunity to review her latest book, Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse. This fine text, and her generous appreciation of my work, was the catalyst for the ongoing dialogue that this article presents.

December 9, 2009

Keith Farnish: Carolyn, thank you very much for agreeing to this “back and forth” interview. With your book Sacred Demise very much still in my mind, I would like to ask what led you to take such a pragmatic approach to the collapse of Industrial Civilization; in other words, what makes you so sure it will happen soon?

Carolyn Baker: You ask why I take such a pragmatic approach to the collapse of civilization and what makes me so sure it will happen. In order to answer that question, I must give you some background. First, I was an adjunct professor of history for over a decade, and I authored a book called U.S. History Uncensored: What Your High School Textbook Didn’t Tell You. Some people have called it “Howard Zinn on steroids”. In the year 2000 I was introduced to Mike Ruppert’s From The Wilderness website and a couple of years later through his site to Peak Oil. At about the same time, he began writing about a coming economic collapse, somewhat but not entirely, related to 9/11. He featured articles analyzing the likelihood of an impending housing bubble and a global economic meltdown. The site also explored climate change and its relation to Peak Oil and economic meltdown. In fact, as a writer for From The Wilderness mid-decade, I began using the term “toxic triangle” to explain the relationship between Peak Oil, climate change, and economic meltdown. For almost a decade, I have been researching how we got to the current state of affairs. In 2007 the most powerful documentary I have yet seen on these issues, specifically the reality and certainty of collapse, What A Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire was released. Superbly researched (all sources may be found at the movie’s website at, this documentary removes all “yes-but’s” about collapse.

In Sacred Demise, I cited What a Way to Go numerous times, but I avoided going into the research validating the inevitability of collapse because the intention of the book was not to “defend” collapse but to assist the reader in preparing emotionally and spiritually for it. At the end of the book I presented a list of reading and viewing resources for any reader desiring additional resources on the topic of collapse.

That said, the real issue is that collapse is not a future event; it’s happening as we speak. At least 80% of what was forecasted by From The Wilderness in the past decade is now occurring. As Mike Ruppert states in his current magnificent Collapse movie, it’s a waste of time and energy to debate the reality of Peak Oil and climate change because they are happening as certainly as is global economic meltdown. So in summary, I’m certain that collapse is happening and that it will only exacerbate in the coming months and years.

December 11, 2009

Carolyn Baker: In Time’s Up! you have wisely distinguished between hope that is useful and harmless, and hope that abdicates responsibility. I’d like to hear more about this distinction and in terms of the ten Tools of Disconnection. As you know, the current president of the United States sealed his electoral fate by running on a platform of “hope” and “change”. Almost two years later, we are now seeing the pathetic results of those two shibboleths in terms of what’s happening on the ground rather than in the vacuous minds of Obama enthusiasts. Please elaborate.

Keith Farnish: “Vacuous minds”, I like that! As you know, in modern civilized cultures we hang on to the idea of Hope as though it has some kind of innate power; I described it in my book as “Secular prayer”. Its use in the Obama camp up to the election and now in the wake of the Copenhagen summit has been in this very form, taken to its apotheosis by writers like Bill McKibben who seem to feel that simply by hoping hard enough for a positive outcome, along with a series of time-wasting symbolic actions, the corner will be turned. As your previous answer spells out succinctly, a corner has indeed been turned, and we are headed down Collapse Street. In the face of a series of ever-worsening news items, the latest being evidence of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet melting, it is actually not that surprising people feel powerless. As I see it, this powerlessness is being exploited by both the political system and the environmental mainstream to ensure we continue to support the “business as usual” agenda – and yes, I am saying that Bill McKibben and the team are supporting business as usual; why else would they ask us to appeal to “our leaders”.

The Tools of Disconnection were something I laid out to simplify the methods that Industrial Civilization uses to keep us disconnected from the real world (in essence, the natural world of which we are part) in favour of a synthetic creation that exists to create wealth, and give power to the latest people who crawl their way to the top of the global hierarchy. Among these tools are things we are very familiar with, such as advertising (“Sell Us A Dream”), authority (“Exploit Our Trust”) and violence (“Abuse Us”). Hope is the tenth, and possibly the most powerful of these Tools, because it is a practice carried out by so many different groups of people, some of whom we consider to be on our side.

I have no problem saying to someone “I hope you have a nice day”, but I will never say to someone “I hope we have the energy and commitment to make things better”. That’s worse than naive, it is dangerous. As Derrick Jensen wrote, so clearly as he always does: “When hope dies, action begins.”

December 18, 2009

Keith Farnish: As collapse starts to take hold, what will you be doing?

Carolyn Baker: What I will be doing as collapse takes hold is what I’ve been doing for many years. The first activity and the one that started my awakening was and is to become and remain informed about what is actually happening as opposed to what the media of civilization is telling us is happening. I have done many things logistically to prepare–things like food storage, creating a community of allies around me, and of course, relocating to a more sustainable and conscious part of the United States. My most significant relationships are with people who are collapse-aware and with whom I am able to talk about the inevitable–people who are also preparing. Above all, I see the world these days through the lens of collapse which causes me to appreciate all of the modest comforts I have, the supportive people in my life, the food I eat, the clean water I drink, and the health I’m privileged to enjoy. I am consciously preparing myself emotionally and spiritually for the unraveling. I know that some have a difficult time with the word “spiritual”, but actually, what I mean by that is beautifully echoed in one sentence in your chapter in Time’s Up! on “Being Ourselves” when you say that “If you are prepared for it, then the journey and the eventual destination can show you what it is really like to be human.” For me, that is the essence of “spiritual.” Civilization has robbed us of our intimate connection with our own humanity–something that I sometimes call our “indigenous self”, and like indigenous people revolting against colonization, collapse is offering us the opportunity to uncolonize and reclaim the indigenous self within us.

Another part of preparation – and it is of course fundamental to the reconnection of which you speak – is my connection with nature. That connection, if deeply felt and viscerally experienced, will inform our priorities, our relationships, our parenting, how we eat, travel, spend our time–virtually every aspect of our lives. A fellow blogger, Guy McPherson names his blog, Nature Bats Last. I endeavor to live my life listening to nature and allowing it to have the last word in my life as much as possible. Of course, that doesn’t mean that if I’m in the forest and see a bear, I’m going to run toward it and embrace it, but it may mean that after removing myself from its territory, I reflect on the encounter and what nature might be trying to communicate to me. And while I admit that imagining myself in a post-collapse, post-petroleum world is difficult, I know that my current logistical, emotional, and spiritual preparations will serve me well and far better I hope, than the person who refuses to look at what is actually happening to this planet and its inhabitants.

December 20, 2009

Carolyn Baker: I’d like to hear your thoughts on the recent Copenhagen circus and how that relates to what you’ve written in Time’s Up! Even mainstream media is using that phrase (time’s up) in relation to the farce that Copenhagen has proven to be. Please elaborate.

Keith Farnish: There was a part of me that, at least for a while, thought the insertion of the phrase “Be aware that authority figures within the system, such as political leaders and corporations, will attempt to provide you with ‘green’ advice: this advice is designed to ensure that civilization continues, and should be ignored,” in the Eco-Meme was a little long-winded and even too obvious to include. It has sadly turned out to be right on the button. Given that the watching public had their expectations wound up to a screaming frenzy with phrases like, “Copenhagen is our last hope”, it is clear that – in the wake of its utter failure to deliver anything substantial – the world has once again been duped. This blame lies not only with the Corporations (who lobbied like fury to ensure there was disagreement and doubt) and the Politicians (who simply did what they were told by the system they a part of), but also to a great extent the absurd behaviour of the environmental NGOs, filling us with a false and dangerous hope – precisely what I alluded to in my previous answer.

Jim Hansen, eminent climate scientist at GISS, said of the Copenhagen Summit: “any agreement emerging from the summit is likely to be deeply flawed; suggesting that the best way to tackle global warming may be to let future generations start from scratch.” This was, of course, decried by the civilized world as flying in the face of reasonable opinion, whatever that is; clearly there is nothing reasonable about condemning the Earth to a mass ecological die-off, but in order to prevent such a scenario, we have to “condemn” the world to economic failure. What came out of Copenhagen was a big thumbs-up to economic growth, and a big “F*** you!” to ecological survival. No wonder a growing number of people are realising the folly of trusting our future to politics.

In as far as the actions towards the end of my book go; the Copenhagen farce simply reinforces the need to undermine the system, because clearly we don’t have a future if we allow it to remain.

December 24, 2009

Keith Farnish: In your book, ‘Sacred Demise’ you are keen to stress that there is a better world after collapse if you are prepared to embrace it. I wholeheartedly agree, and wonder if you see encouraging the collapse process to be a corollary of this view.

Carolyn Baker: I absolutely believe that encouraging the collapse of industrial civilization is desirable and necessary. Some would disagree and argue that that would lead to more suffering and loss of live. I’m not sure that the suffering and loss of life resulting from civilization “running its course” would not be as bad or worse and quite simply be a wash. Derrick Jensen has given us voluminous evidence that civilization is like the perpetrator of abuse in a family system. The entire system is set up to protect the abuser, and everyone in the family has bought into the belief that the consequences of busting the abuser are much worse than remaining silent and allowing the perpetrator to continue abusing. Occasionally, a member of the system “buys out” of it and blows the whistle by screaming the secrets within and/or outside the family. This is profoundly liberating for the person breaking silence and ultimately, whether they realize it or not, helps liberate the family. In such cases, even if abuse continues and some of the family members defend and enable the perpetrator, the system can never be the same and will slowly or quickly implode.

I have to say that even now, I see signs of this same dynamic occurring in civilization. Millions of people are buying out of it, even as millions more are waiting for a “return to normal.” Recently, I attended a meeting of the New Unemployment here in Boulder, Colorado in which people are networking and dialoging about the “gift” of being laid off or being unable to find a job because they now finally see through the capitalist system and realize that it is taking them and the earth nowhere except to death and destruction. These folks are using their unemployed time to first of all, discover what it is that they really want to do with their lives, and also using the time to create things they have wanted to create all their lives. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have bills to pay; it doesn’t mean they aren’t scared and anxious about how they will pay them, but it does mean that they will now move forward to structure a livelihood that departs from the values of industrial civilization in ways that will bring meaning and purpose to their lives.

I believe that we can assist the collapse process by both buying out of civilization and by actively undermining it as you explain so articulately in your book. In my recent Winter Solstice article, I talked about indigenous cultures in which the elders or wisdom leaders of the tribe or clan, have two very important roles. One is to speak the truth about whatever they see that is wrong or right with the community. They are not concerned with being liked, but only with speaking the truth so that the community continues to adhere to its values so that it can sustain itself. The other job of the elder is to help create things of beauty. In that way, he or she is both a prophet and an artist. I believe that this is what we must be in our efforts to undermine civilization. Moreover, I believe that we must be discerning and stealthy in our efforts to undermine, and you refer to this as well in “Time’s Up.” It is very important that we speak the truth when that is appropriate, be discreet, and create as much beauty in our lives and communities as possible.

December 31, 2009

Carolyn Baker: My next question for you has to do with the second suggestion you make on Page 221 of “Time’s Up” in which you admonish us to live in ways that do not contribute to the global economy. Would you elaborate and give specific examples of what that would look like for most people.

Keith Farnish: This is a very timely question indeed, for two reasons: it coincides with a variety of reports that the global economy is starting to pick up again in the aftermath of the global recession; it also comes shortly after a comment was made on the Orion Magazine web site, in response to another great article by Derrick Jensen. The comment was made with regards to the possible ways we can help undermine Industrial Civilization:

“Do nothing. The industrial complex thrives on activity. It churns activity like corn in a mill. If you do nothing (not buying stuff, not watching tv, not doing overtime) you remove the paste from the millstone and the wheels destroy themselves in a great roar of economic hunger – no help needed.”

I don’t claim anything I write is other than common sense, so for me to say this comment was inspired by anything I have written would be boastful, although these words are reflected in what I say in my book, which makes it particularly heartening to see someone else writing almost exactly the same – I guess it means I must be onto something:

“Your place in the system is as a component in a massive food web. Like all food webs, it is driven by energy; physical energy sources like oil, gas, coal and radioactive materials drive the machines that ensure money keeps floating to the top of the vat where the Elites skim it off to add to their wealth. If you are resourceful or in a role that holds some status, you can have some of this wealth too, and the material trappings that come with it. Without the energy that drives the web, though, there is no money, and there is no web. It is not just the oil, gas, coal and various sources of radiation that keep the web operating though – people are equally vital, more so, in fact. Unless people run the machines, staff the shops, build the products, drive the lorries, create the advertisements, read the news and enforce the law, the web will collapse upon itself, bringing the entire hierarchy down with it.”

In that respect, the answer to your question revolves around the idea of, initially, a clear recognition that much of what you do is actively contributing to the larger process of global ecological destruction, simply by virtue of your being a part of the system; and then progressively withdrawing from the system so that you (a) don’t play your part in this destructive process and (b) weaken the system that requires your input to thrive. The “recognition” stage is the trigger, and is very difficult for most civilized people to attain due to the “Tools of Disconnection” keeping us active contributors; but once this stage is attained, the “withdrawal” process can proceed with aplomb.

I would probably recommend, if I was forced to be prescriptive, the following first stages of withdrawal:

1) Reduce your consumption of new, non-perishable items to an absolute minimum, which will require a certain level of willpower and tenacity, particularly if you have children and live in an urban or suburban location. Combine the reduction in “newsumption” with the purchase of pre-owned items and the repair of existing items, and this becomes a lot easier.

2) Localise your activity, including where your food originally comes from (if you grow it yourself or communally, then you cut out all sorts of economic ties); how far you travel to obtain goods and services – including how far people providing these to you have to travel; how far you travel to “work” (see later); and where your energy comes from, so if you can generate it yourself, so much the better.

3) Taking the first stage into account, if you can reduce your expenses to a bare minimum, then you will almost certainly need to do less paid work, and can potentially work for yourself rather than for the Man. Not only will you have a lot more time to spend with your family, friends and your own efforts to make your life uncivilized; you will also be out of the industrialised “work-play-work” loop, which determines to a great extent how people live.

Of course there are many other things you can do, but that’s already quite a lot to be going on with for the average civilized, commerce-soaked individual. Anyone reading this will no doubt be able to work out many other withdrawal activities they can carry out and, just as importantly, help and encourage others to also take part in.

January 4, 2010

Keith Farnish: In your latest article on Speaking Truth To Power – a brilliant analysis of the relevance of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to the industrial world – you touch on the way that many activists throw themselves into work in order to avoid facing up to the reality of the situation. This is, effectively, the first and most potently destructive stage of the Kübler-Ross Grief model, i.e. Denial. Speaking as a psychotherapist, how important to you feel a pragmatic attitude to bereavement is, in the face of the world we are now facing?

Carolyn Baker: In the face of the world we are facing, I believe that authentic grieving is more important than it has ever been. Psychological research repeatedly confirms that “good grief”, that is grief that is fully felt and allowed, is healing, cleansing, and empowering whereas blocked grief is terribly toxic and leads to depression, anxiety, and suicide.

Grief is another one of those realities in industrial civilization that has repeatedly been swept under the rug as not worthy of our valuable time which should be spent colonizing someone and making a profit off of something. In fact, on one blog (which shall remain nameless) where I posted my article on Transition Trauma, I received, (exclusively from men I might add) comments like, “Rubbish! We need to grow up, grow a pair, and pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and not rely on ‘support’ from other people.” I was appalled because I thought this was 2010 and that John Wayne was dead. But this is the legacy of civilization. In fact, I would not hesitate to declare that blocked grief is one reason (besides cheap and abundant oil) that industrial civilization has been so wildly “successful” until recent years in which many humans and certainly all other species recognize what a nightmare it really is.

Now more than ever, we need to grieve, and if we think there is much to grieve now, we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. Paradoxically, grief, while it might appear to “weaken” us, if fully experienced, empowers us to rise up and say, “No more!” One classic example I can think of is Cindy Sheehan here in the U.S. When she allowed herself to go to the depths of her grief regarding the loss of her son Casey in the Iraq War, she rose up in wizened rage to stop the war machine and the politicians waxing fat and happy from it. Hell hath no fury, you might say, like human beings who feel the depths of evil and injustice in the fibers of of their guts. So rather than grief paralyzing us so that we can’t act, it has the capacity to take us to passion and fervor that we never knew we had. In this sense, grief is now more “pragmatic” than it has ever been. Through allowing ourselves to experience it, we reclaim the humanity stolen from us by civilization, and accessing that treasure, I believe, gives us the compassion, spine, and deep conviction to resist and stop civilization’s madness on behalf of ourselves and the entire community of life.

So I say, bring on the grieving–now more than ever.

January 8, 2010

Carolyn Baker: As I look at the world in the first days of 2010, I see anything but a pretty picture – more real or bogus threats of terror attacks, a widening war in the Middle East – I won’t bore you with the list because I know you see it too. Yet what I see among most members of industrial society is mind numbing, insipid apathy and mediocrity and the delusion that things will somehow return to normal in 2010 – or at least by 2011. This is frightening to me, and I am inclined to believe, given the state of the world, that a dramatic event of gargantuan proportions will be necessary to alter this apathy. In fact, I believe that if we don’t receive some kind of wake up call in 2010, we can pretty well kiss our butts goodbye. I hope this question isn’t too open-ended or broad, but I’m wondering what you see in that regard.

Keith Farnish: This is a fascinating question for all sorts of reasons, but particularly for me because it is something I have had at the back of my mind since October 2007; this was when a friend of mine sent me a report about a drought in Atlanta, Georgia, to which she appended this comment:

“The ominous lesson: if most people can’t understand something as immediate and simple as seeing their own reservoir for drinking water going bone dry, they won’t change for any less obvious threat. They have to experience seeing their grass and trees die while they drink bottled water and go unwashed. Anything mechanical needing water won’t have any, such as turbines in power plants. (And the southeast relies heavily on coal for electrical power plants.) Like you say, they are totally disconnected from the natural world and how it sustains them.”

It resonated like a gong in my head, yet I hadn’t been able to find an appropriate place to reflect on this until now. My initial response was harsh, but I expect quite a few people will have sympathy with it:

“Wow! What a thought! You may not have said it directly, but what we need is real sufferance that is the direct result of human activity – sufferance that doesn’t take the rest of the ecosystem with it but acts as a big pointy stick to the people causing the problem. Localised droughts are certainly that – wouldn’t you love to see Las Vegas run out of water or have a huge blackout?”

What would be the reaction to Las Vegas running out of water? It’s a difficult one to call, but have no doubt politicians and corporations will clamour to gain advantage from the situation; blame will be apportioned, authorities will be sued, profligate businesses may even be held to account so long as the concept of “Las Vegas” can somehow be maintained. New pipelines will be constructed with the Bechtels of this world getting the contracts; wells will be dug deeper and rivers will be sucked dry…the machine must keep turning, the people mustn’t know it is fallible! There will be water riots, most likely, and some people might just realise that things are not how they should be.

I never made it to the end of Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” — it was simply too bleak, and the point had been awfully well made within a couple of chapters. Klein’s analysis suggests that a disaster of any type that presents an opportunity for further social suppression and free-market economics will be seized upon by those best placed to do so. If this sounds bleak then it shouldn’t do, because – as was seen so vividly in post-Katrina New Orleans and as is being seen as I write across the Northern Hemisphere in this period of uncharacteristically heavy snow – in periods of crisis people become remarkable resourceful; they return to basic human instincts of co-operation and survival. I believe that even though such events are exploited by the system for the benefit of its elite members, they can also be times where the best in humanity is revealed.

If those among us that want to rid the world of the hyper-exploitative industrial consumer culture are ready to act in times of hardship, then the fuse for genuine change may be lit at times like this. It would be morally wrong to hope for truly distressing events – we should not hope for anything – but when they do come, we must be ready to hold peoples’ hands and tell them that there is another way to live.

Carolyn Baker is a historian, psychologist and practising psychotherapist. She runs the website Speaking Truth To Power. Her latest book is “Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse”

Originally published at

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