This past week I attended another screening of “What A Way To Go: Life At The End Of Empire“. My intention was not to see the documentary yet again-perhaps for the fifteenth time, but to support the film makers, my friends Sally Erickson and Tim Bennett, who were completing the last leg of their West Coast screening tour in my state. However, I did watch most of the film again, and this time, my experience was different. No doubt that had something to do with the walk Tim and I took during part of the film, bouncing around the narrow, vintage streets of Silver City, New Mexico and filling our lungs with the chilly night air. Maybe it was Tim’s comment that when people ask “What can I do?” they don’t really want the truth but rather ten easy steps that will require no sacrifice, no pain, and certainly no change of lifestyle. Tim’s comment resonated with my experience in teaching history to college students who incessantly ask, “But what can we do?” when I systematically lay out the reality of the corporatocracy the United States has become, energy depletion, climate change, and of course, the police state in which we now reside. When I answer the students with my perception of options rather than solutions, they tend to sink in their chairs and tell me that they feel overwhelmed not only with the daunting reality of the planetary situation but even worse, that they wanted me to offer them “hope”, and are disappointed that I instead offer them responsibility. I tell them that since I don’t have any “hope” it would be disingenuous of me to attempt to offer it to anyone else.
Along with showing them “What A Way To Go”, I’ve been showing another documentary lately, “Escape From Suburbia which focuses on individuals and communities who are either relocating to other countries or areas of the U.S. or are digging in to relocalize their communities for sustainable living. It seems that when students or most Americans for that matter realize the enormous personal responsibility that telling the whole truth about the collapse of civilization requires and the commitment, courage, and action that is necessary in order to navigate collapse, they can’t wait to turn their attention elsewhere. Perhaps if they don’t think about it, it will all go away-or so they wish.
By the end of the semester my students usually realize that the future they thought they had doesn’t exist, and they admit, albeit reluctantly, that the class has caused them to ponder profoundly their career path, their values, their desire to have children, and the very reasons they are on the planet. While it’s true that they may leave my class and repress everything they learned, it’s also true that they will not be totally surprised by collapse and that they will have some tools for preparation they might not have otherwise had.
What The Question “What Can I Do?” Prevents Us From Experiencing
As I teach, write, and travel throughout America, I have come to understand that Tim was right: No one who asks “What can I do?” really wants an answer-at least not a real answer. For this reason, the charade of political candidates, elections, and the corporate media that guarantees the success of that particular con game has hypnotically entranced the electorate who overwhelmingly prefer to remain delusional. The majority take little interest in the candidates anyway, perceiving them as yet another group of celebrities. Yet even more delusional are those who call themselves progressive. These individuals are desperate to keep the show on the road and sanction its validity, and they are the ones who least want to know the answer to “What can I do?” because of what it would cost them.
Consequently, they must pre-occupy themselves with “solutions” that have nothing to do with the actual state of the earth and its inhabitants but which offer a false sense of making a difference. When I think of them, I cannot help but note that as the Titanic was sinking it would have made no difference if hundreds of its passengers had collected endless buckets of water the ship had taken on and emptied it back into the sea, but it may have provided them with a momentary sense of participating in a “solution.”
Tenaciously grasping for solutions serves no other purpose at this point in human history than distracting us from the myriad layers of feelings we have regarding the death of planet earth. As Americans we are more afflicted with “death phobia” than are other cultures around the world. Most indigenous traditions have some sort of “good day to die” perspective, but we heroically persevere in our war on death. It seems this is what Tim Bennett meant earlier this year when he wrote a blog piece in which he stated that the switch had flipped and that it is now time to let go of the shore, sailing into the unknown in the lifeboats we have created. As we do so, we exit the paradigm of suicide and opt for survival, knowing all the while that there are no guarantees that we will not succumb.
Whereas many collapse watchers disparage feeling feelings as extraneous and insist that we must focus on taking action dispassionately, I argue that action must be informed by emotion. Otherwise, we will only perpetuate the paradigm of doing estranged from feeling, that is, living from the head while disowning the heart-one of the fundamental premises of the culture of civilization which has brought us to where we are now. Thus, as one part of us may minimize the importance of our actions being informed by emotion, the seasoned sage in us must continually ask ourselves how different we want the new world/community/individual that we are becoming and shaping to be? If we merely pour new wine into old bottles, we fundamentally change nothing. If we take action without feeling the full impact of our fear, grief, and anger, as well as our gratitude for what resources we do have in our lives, we are likely to re-create the culture of empire in another form elsewhere.
Lose The Word “Solutions”; Embrace The Notion Of “Options”
At the same time that I’m pleading for the end of “solution obsession”, I’m suggesting re-focusing on options. We cannot “solve” the issues of climate change, energy depletion, species die-off, global pandemics, global government, or the rampant proliferation of fascism. For those awaiting a mass awakening or mass resistance, I fear you wait in vain. We would be hard-pressed to find any population in the history of the human race that is as comatose as that of the United States in this moment. In my opinion, focusing on “mass” anything is the opposite of where our attention must be, namely, local and community survival. Notice, I did not say local “solutions” but rather, survival. As I have stated repeatedly, the issues are: Who do I want to be in the face of collapse? Who do I love and trust and want to share my life with? Who do I need to reach out to in order to enhance all of our well being? As the “I” becomes “we”, we all must ask: Do we need to remain where we are in order to survive, or do we need to go elsewhere? What actions should we be taking? Have we put in place a structure or process for practicing and improving our communication skills and resolving conflict? What is our level of food and water security? What is our access to alternative or traditional medicine?
These are merely a few of the plethora of questions that must be addressed, and putting our attention on “solutions” will only distract us from doing so. In other words, “What can I do?” is not only not useful, it could actually get you dead.
I borrow again from the film makers of “What A Way To Go” when I offer “Five Things You Can Do” from their website:
•1) “Fully acknowledge and internalize that the culture of Empire is destroying the support systems on which the community of life depends, and robbing us of our essential humanity.”
I suggest mulling the words “internalize” and “humanity.” Then ask yourself how electing presidential or Congressional candidates, not unlike putting lipstick on a pig, can stop the evisceration of your essential humanity. Ponder the system that nominates and owns those candidates and determines their political positions during their terms in office. Notice that all candidates, in order to be nominated or elected, must participate in the evisceration of your humanity.
•2) “Talk about your concerns with everyone you know.” Notice their reactions. Notice the incredulity, the apathy, the denial, the false hopes of “solutions.” Then notice how you feel. Notice also the individuals who hear you and sense that what you are feeling is valid because they feel it too. Continue to connect with those individuals; they are inestimably valuable to you.
•3) “Find your work in the world to preserve life, change this culture and/or create restorative ways for individuals and communities to live in harmony with each other and the non-human world.”
Start asking yourself why you are here. What did you come here to do? Why did you show up on planet earth at this time and not another?
•4) “Assess what you actually need during this transition in order to live and do your work. Only buy what you need and buy from local sources in order to support the creation of local economies.” To what extent are you powering down and simplifying your life? Do you know your neighbors? Local farmers? Local business people?
•5) “Find or deepen your spiritual connection to that which is greater than you. Ask and then listen for guidance about how to live joyfully and creatively in the face of these unprecedented times.”
Notice that none of these has anything to do with mass movements or political candidates. In fact, they are all about you and your internal and local worlds. Could it be that for some of us it might be easier if the options were all about the macrocosm instead of the microcosm? Is it not more comfortable to focus on mass movements and political candidates instead of the personal responsibility that collapse throws in our faces?
Options Engender Opportunities
Collapse is a multi-faceted word which I frequently use in my writing and speaking. It is important to use the word and not resist it because the entire construct of civilization is collapsing in front of our eyes. For example, the U.S. has not “entered a recession” but rather the first stages of global economic collapse. Our public schools are not merely turning out undereducated students, the entire educational system is collapsing. It’s not that energy depletion will make it more difficult to “grow our economy,” but rather that in reality, growth is over! Although we refuse to recognize our limits on planet earth, planet earth is setting limits whether we like it or not. As James Howard Kunstler says in “Escape From Suburbia” in response to Dick Cheney’s maxim that “The American way of life is not negotiable,” if we refuse to negotiate our way of life, then energy depletion will make sure that we get a new negotiating partner called “reality.”
When we refuse to accept the fact of collapse, we armor ourselves from endless opportunities for personal and community growth. Perhaps other collapse watchers would prefer not to hear about “opportunities” inherent in collapse, but I feel compelled to name them!
I would be the first to admit the possibility that nuclear war may erase all potential for human survival as collapse more fully unfolds. However, I would also adamantly insist that it may not be inevitable and that local communities and families who have consciously prepared for collapse can not only navigate it but create mini-societies where an entirely new paradigm prevails. In the latter scenario unimaginable opportunities (a word very closely connected with “options”) abound for remaking human relationships, human connection with the earth and the non-human world, and the reclaiming of our ancient memory of living within limits as partners with, not dominators of, the earth.
Paradoxically, “solutions” obfuscate opportunities whereas options nurture them. Not only is it too late for “solutions” but the process of collapse, which is well underway, challenges us to revere and seize options in which reside unfathomable opportunities. The switch has been flipped; there’s no turning back to antiquated means of addressing unprecedented challenges. Time to stop asking “What can I do?” and start doing the five things you can. It could mean the difference between suicide and survival.
Watch this website, Speaking Truth to Power for more information about Carolyn’s forthcoming book, The Spirituality Of Collapse: Restoring Life On A Dying Planet.
 See review of “What A Way To Go: Life At The End Of Empire” by Carolyn Baker
 See review of “Escape From Suburbia” by Mick Winter