When people ask me, “Will the Long Emergency happen quickly or slowly?” I answer, “Yes.” When they ask, “Will it be like rolling down a bumpy hill or falling off a cliff?” my answer is “Yes.” My response usually draws laughter or a knowing smile, and then I proceed to explain what I mean as I intend to do in this article. Answering “yes” to such questions underscores the paradox that is at the core of both the questions—and the answers, and without which it will be absolutely, unequivocally impossible to navigate the Long Emergency.
Obviously, the expression, “long emergency” is in itself paradoxical. The very word “emergency” implies a crisis that is sudden, immediate, short-lived, and abrupt. So when James Howard Kunstler entitled his book “The Long Emergency,” he captured the paradox that lies at the core of humanity’s current and future predicament.
The dictionary defines paradox as: a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth. Psychologist James Hillman in a recent interview, when asked about a number of world events, responded with:
We have to realize that our minds are our enemy. The current debate has become very ideological, with certain fixed ideas dominating the discussion. This is a result of thinking in opposites; it goes back to Aristotle, and has to do with an either/or kind of logic: If something is this way, it cannot be that way.
But this isn’t how the world really is. For example, most people think that the opposite of white is black. But there are shades of black — from blackberries, to black coal or blackbirds — that have nothing to do with white. The point is to learn how to evaluate each issue on its own merits without having to bring up the opposition’s point of view. In therapy, when you have a dream of your mother, for example, you don’t necessarily have to talk about your father as a supposed opposite.
While I don’t agree with everything Hillman writes or many things he says in the interview, I found these two paragraphs priceless in terms of how we need to think about the Long Emergency, particular in the areas of how it is likely to unfold, how we should hold it in our consciousness, and its implications for our species at large.
In older, more traditional civilizations preceding our own, one finds a remarkable capacity for embracing paradox. In fact, paradox inhabited the psyches of indigenous cultures as if in their DNA, as exemplified in their art, literature, stories, and other cultural artifacts. It was not until the dawn of modernity, greatly facilitated by Rene Descartes’ dualistic perspective which became increasingly predominate in Western intellectual tradition, that either/or thinking triumphed.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, after exhaustive research of traditional cultures, physician Carl Jung, brought forth an entire psychology grounded in paradox because he witnessed firsthand among his patients the pathology of the dualistic perspective and its severe emotional consequences. And indeed, we need only reflect on the fundamental values of industrial, corporate, consumer capitalism to notice the polarization of opposites inherent therein. Thus, we approach the reality of the Long Emergency with questions issuing from a Cartesian paradigm that belie one of the essential causes of our current predicament. Some of these questions are:
Will It Be Fast Or Slow, Positive or Negative?
A number of writers on the Long Emergency, including Kunstler, opine that the collapse of industrial civilization, transition to a new way of life, and what some have called “The Great Turning,” will be a protracted process, punctuated by poignant, painful crises that deepen the severity of the overall unfolding of events.
More recently, robust discussion has ensued among Long Emergency-aware individuals and groups regarding what the process should be called and whether or not it should be viewed as “positive” or “negative.” Again, this is an embarrassingly Cartesian approach to our predicament—and far removed from the troubling realities of it.
I personally prefer the notion of a process that is unfolding in roughly three segments, all of which are congealing, convoluting, and complementing each other. The first segment I believe is the collapse of industrial civilization in which we are currently deeply embroiled and which will inevitably intensify. The second would be a period of transition which has also just begun and will also intensify, followed by a Great Turning, in which after a long period of anguish and the decimation of Cartesian dualism, humanity will likely engage collectively in an unprecedented turning from its self-destructive paradigm and for the first time in many millennia, embrace and create infrastructures for living a paradigm that authentically and unequivocally sustains life on earth.
For me, it is crucial to acknowledge and name the collapse of the current paradigm as such. To avoid the word, tip-toe around it in fear of “scaring people,” or cosmetically alter the unraveling of industrial civilization, is essentially tantamount to celebrating a rebirth while ignoring that a death occurred. To deny death while focusing only on transformation reveals the level of denial in which we are steeped and profoundly insults masses of human beings around us who are terrified of the future because no matter how much we prattle about “potential,” “opportunities,” or “resilience,” they are terrified in the marrow of their bones of what the future holds. They do not need us to fluff pillows and bring them a cup of tea, but to validate what they already know is so, even if they are kicking and screaming with all their might against what they know—and to provide them with support for talking about their fears. Every human knows in their gut when someone or something around them is dying because whether we acknowledge it or not, we are connected with everyone and everything on levels which humanity has only begun to understand.
In his extraordinary 2010 book Requiem For A Species: Why We Resist The Truth About Climate Change, author Clive Hamilton states that the consequences of climate change will result in a near-death experience for humanity. But as is so often the case with such events, “Those who have had near-death experiences or life-threatening illnesses are often transformed so that they see their previous lives as empty and self-centered.” Furthermore, not only is the impact of climate change likely to produce a near-death experience, but so are the impacts of peak oil and global economic crises. What sense then does it make to recoil from the world “collapse” when the entire human race is well aware that it is swimming in it and feels the relentless burden of it from moment to moment? The kindest and most compassionate response is to validate and name what our fellow earthlings intuit rather than colluding in industrial civilization’s delusional denial-fest of “unlimited growth” and “recovery from the recession”—or even the notion that “nothing is collapsing; we are only ‘transitioning’.”
So let me clarify: “Potential,” “opportunities,” and “resilience” are very important and useful words, but not when they are used to obscure the last gasps of industrial civilization which are incessantly occurring around us in present time, and which, if we are honest with ourselves and each other, we know will only exacerbate. Such words serve us only if we are also willing to name the ubiquitous death by which we are surrounded and if we are willing to feel it and speak honestly about what we feel.
Are These Secular or Spiritual Issues?
First, let’s notice that a question like this would never occur in an indigenous culture. For those societies, there was no separation between the two, and the notion of polarizing them is a thoroughly “civilized” one.
Secondly, the dichotomy results from dissecting the human psyche, insisting that only certain parts are worth keeping, and discarding all others. It also results from religious abuse and the belief that words like “spiritual,” “sacred,” or “transpersonal” are religious terms. In fact, the word religion is rooted in the Latin word relegare which means “to bind back,” or “to obligate.” It is a term of bondage and contraction whereas a word like “transpersonal” is expansive and refers to a part of the psyche that is larger and more comprehensive than the rational mind or human ego.
The words, spiritual, sacred, transpersonal have nothing whatsoever to do with theism. Theism is a doctrine of a monotheistic, personal god that is “out there somewhere” in the universe or as Matthew Fox notes, “is behind the universe with an oilcan.” In an interview with Derrick Jensen in Listening To The Land, Fox states, “And of course, the next step after theism is atheism. It’s easy to reject a God who’s way out in the sky. I don’t know any other civilization that has invented atheism except the West. The word does not exist in indigenous languages. The spirit exists.”
I believe that collapse, transition, and Great Turning are revealing and will reveal the integrated wholeness of the human psyche and the inherent connectivity of all life. The unraveling of the paradigm that has fragmented the psyche and separated us from the transpersonal and the entire earth community is a sacred process, and if we can open to it, instead of resisting or trivializing it, we may have the opportunity to become a wiser, more compassionate, more connected species.
An integral aspect of the Great Turning, I believe, will be a turning away from all forms of theism and religious abuse and a turning toward and abiding with the sacred self within us and within all other sentient beings. This may be the ultimate “opportunity” of the Long Emergency—a protracted process which will be fraught with anguish alongside unprecedented transformation. None of us knows how much of either we will experience. What is certain is that our day-to-day reality will be comprised of both, and our challenge is to hold the tension of those opposites, rather than embracing one and excluding the other. I believe that is unquestionably the most difficult work confronting us, both now and in the future.
Author and educator, Margaret Wheatley, in her recent book Perseverance, speaks powerfully and paradoxically to the uncertainty of the future and captures the essence of holding the tension of, rather than polarizing, opposites:
Either position, optimism or pessimism, keeps us from fully engaging with the complexity of this time. If we see only troubles, or only opportunities, in both cases we are blinded by our need for certainty, our need to know what’s going on, to figure things out so we can be useful…..
Certainty is a very effective way of defending ourselves from the irresolvable nature of life. If we’re certain, we don’t have to immerse ourselves in the strange, puzzling paradoxes that always characterize a time of upheaval…..
The challenge is to refuse to categorize ourselves. We don’t have to take sides or define ourselves as either optimists or pessimists. Much better to dwell in uncertainty, hold the paradoxes, live in the complexities and contradictions without needing them to resolve.
Carolyn’s latest book Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Handbook For Inner Transition is now available at Amazon and by ordering from your local bookstore. The Introduction may be read at www.carolynbaker.net