The most deadly criticism one could make of modern civilization is that apart from its man-made crises and catastrophes, [it] is not humanly interesting. . . . In the end, such a civilization can produce only a mass man: incapable of spontaneous, self-directed activities: at best patient, docile, disciplined to monotonous work to an almost pathetic degree. . . . Ultimately such a society produces only two groups of men: the conditioners and the conditioned, the active and passive barbarians.
~Lewis Mumford, 1951~
Until you can ‘see’ yourself, you can’t be yourself. Or perhaps more accurately, once you can ‘see’ yourself, you can’t any longer be somebody else, the person you’ve pretended to be, that you thought you were, that others want you to be, somebody you’re not.
~Dave Pollard, “How To Save The World” Blog~
This past week I have been intrigued by several articles that have surfaced across the Internet which appear to substantiate what many of us have known for more than a decade, namely, that industrial civilization is in a rapid downward spiral of demise. In his August 2 article on Alternet, Noam Chomsky argues that “America’s Imperial Power Is Showing Signs Of Real Decline,” in which he cites an international terrorist campaign by the United States as the reason that countries around the world are viewing it with increased suspicion in general and that in particular, the US has destroyed the notion of Latin America as its reliable back yard.
Earlier this week, psychologist Bruce Levine argued in “Why Life In America Can Literally Drive You Insane,” that mental illness in our culture is now epidemic for a number of reasons, including the over-diagnosis of it by mental health professionals. Levine succinctly summarizes the pathology of modernity in this way:
Underlying many of psychiatry’s nearly 400 diagnoses is the experience of helplessness, hopelessness, passivity, boredom, fear, isolation, and dehumanization—culminating in a loss of autonomy and community-connectedness. Do our societal institutions promote:
- Enthusiasm—or passivity?
- Respectful personal relationships—or manipulative impersonal ones?
- Community, trust, and confidence—or isolation, fear and paranoia?
- Empowerment—or helplessness?
- Autonomy (self-direction)—or heteronomy (institutional-direction)?
- Participatory democracy—or authoritarian hierarchies?
- Diversity and stimulation—or homogeneity and boredom?
Similarly, in her BBC investigative video report, Reeta Chakrabarti asks, “Is Modern Life Killing Us?” which highlights the maddening pace of modern life and the toll that it takes on our bodies and souls. But as Levine points out, it is more than just the tempo of modernity that deadens us. It is also a lack of aliveness, passion, community, and autonomy.
What the scions of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment philosophers before them were unable to grasp was that a society established on the principles of separation from itself and the earth community; a society that reveres the accumulation of wealth and status as its raison d’être; that pompously assumes that the earth’s resources are here for our use only and that they are infinite; that esteems rugged individualism as a hallmark of holiness; and that assumes that reason and intellect should be the fundamental guiding principles of relationships with all beings—a society based on these tenets is destined to fail miserably. Why? Because these assumptions are inherently emotionally and spiritually toxic for humans and all life forms within their purview.
Whereas in her The End Of The Suburbs: Where The American Dream Is Moving, Leigh Gallagher highlights the failed experiment called suburbia, arguing principally in terms of economic factors, Greg Greene’s 2004 documentary “The End of Suburbia,” demonstrated the irrefutable impact of peak oil on the suburban project and brilliantly connected the dots between energy and economics in a manner unprecedented since perhaps the publication of M. King Hubbert’s original peak oil thesis. Indeed, the end of suburbia is upon us, as is the collapse of industrial civilization at large.
During and after the collapse of nations and empires, the incidence of mental illness surges, almost without exception. We are currently witnessing this in Greece as did many individuals in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Yet the collapse of industrial civilization, while now well underway, is in its early stages. And yes, the logical question is: If this is what a societal psychotic break looks like now, what will it look like in ten or twenty years? As if that question weren’t ominous enough, this past week we learned that shifts in climate have historically been associated with violent conflicts. Yes, when people are “hot under the collar” and other places, they tend to become more aggressive and violent. Thus, as climate change intensifies, it is not difficult to imagine the psychological hell that may lie ahead in a society where epidemic mental illness and violence are about to fly off the charts. This study also reveals that the violence may escalate collectively into endless wars and not merely remain personal between individuals.
What Is To Be Done?
Certainly nothing can be done to stop the collapse of industrial civilization, but much can be done to hasten its demise. I will leave that topic, however, to my friends Derrick Jensen, Keith Farnish, and Guy McPherson. Nevertheless, as I have written before, if you choose to invest your time and energy in expediting the unraveling, by all means do so, but giving industrial civilization a swift kick off the cliff, while temporarily exhilarating, is not sufficient to protect you from your own psychotic break or the precariousness of living in a world where violence escalates on a daily basis. In order to forge that kind of stability and enhance your safety, much more will be required of you.
Now is the time to hone your emotional literacy and communication skills. Those who believe that a cache of weapons and a truckload of barter items will suffice for navigating a world in severe trauma are tragically short-sighted. So are those who assume that since humans have the capacity to reason, reason will trump all hostility, reactivity, depression, rage, or passive-aggression—in oneself or the other.
My work is replete with a plethora of toolkits for fortifying yourself psychologically and refining your ability to listen and speak with others skillfully and respectfully. Additionally, working with your own personal shadow material (parts of yourself that you have disowned as “not me”—see “Our Collective Psychosis”) is critical in navigating the culture’s emotional breakdown and enhancing your own wholeness. Just as cultures of industrial civilization will ultimately be compelled to own their shadow collectively, so individuals in collapse will be challenged mightily to own theirs because our collective and individual “innocence” are likely to be pummeled in the gauntlet of collapse. (For an in-depth study of America’s collective shadow projection, I recommend Madness At The Gates Of The City: The Myth Of American Innocence, by Barry Spector.)
Amid the losses of a collapsing society, citizens in those societies who cannot accept what is actually happening to the collective and take responsibility for their part in it are more likely to become mentally ill, depressed, violent, and take their own lives. And while on the one hand, the intensity of suffering around oneself may become unbearable to the point of wanting to die to escape from it, we should not assume that suicide is inevitable or the only option. Nor should we assume that life in every region on earth will become unlivable. Furthermore, even if our fate includes death or suicide, is not awakening to the previously-untapped resources of one’s own psyche preferable to sinking into comatose madness or leaving the planet in a state of abject meaninglessness? Whatever the circumstances, death must be honored as the momentous, sacred rite of passage that it is.
Where Are We?
I’m often asked where we are in the timetable of collapse. The truest answer is that I do not know—nor does anyone else, but my intention is to read the signs that blaze across my awareness daily. Unlike five years ago, it is no longer unthinkable to use the “C” word. America is losing its imperial power; people are increasingly acknowledging that life in industrial civilization is untenable and unlivable; and as the climate warms, humans are likely to become even more violent and aggressive than they already are.
Unlike Lewis Mumford, I do not believe that humans are destined to become “passive or active barbarians.” What we must finally recognize is that our physical survival is far less important than the meaning we make from collapse and what we discover about ourselves and the other members of the earth community as humanity’s self-induced madness continues to engulf the planet. Society’s psychotic break does not have to become our own personal psychotic break. Rather, it can become a path to meaning, purpose, and a quality of heartfelt communion with others that we could only dream of while the wheels of industrial civilization were being greased by delusions of power and control. In order for that to happen, however, we must be willing to do the work that a transformative breakthrough, rather than a tragic breakdown invariably entails.