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Transition: The Sacred, The Scared, And The Scarred

By Carolyn Baker

09 December, 2010

I read with great fascination, Rob Hopkins’ critical response to Michael Brownlee’s November 26 article “The Evolution of Transition In The U.S.” In it, Rob begins by listing a number of criticisms of Transition in recent years and adds that criticism of Transition has been a positive process which has helped to shape what it is today. However, he finds Michael’s proposal to put the sacred at the center of Transition “concerning.”

Despite my deep respect for Rob and the enormous legacy to which he and Transition in the UK have given birth, I cannot be silent about his concerns. The first seems to be Michael’s assertion that Transition initiatives in the U.S. must “declare independence,” from Transition in the U.K. Here I recall one of the things that first drew me to Transition, namely its focus on local solutions based on the needs of a particular place. Having been an activist for decades, I was beyond disillusioned by groups that claimed to depart from the hierarchical, corporate functioning of most organizations of industrial civilization but in fact, mimicked them. I was thrilled to discover that the Transition model as outlined in the Transition Handbook, was at long last, a genuine exception to this. In more recent months, however, I have started to feel as if a kind of creeping corporatism is beginning to emerge which as Michael notes, we need to declare independence from. Specifically, what I have noticed is an implicit assumption that however Transition is implemented in a particular place, it must defer to the leadership of Transition in the U.K. and in the U.S. So on the one hand, “declaring independence” from a tendency to become monolithic in thinking and action may well be necessary, but in no way is this synonymous with renouncing a “spirit of collaboration.” Throughout Michael’s article, I hear a deep desire for collaboration, but also for resilience in our approach to implementing Transition in the U.S.

As for economics, Rob’s argument against putting all his eggs in the basket of any one economic theory, misses the point. The point is not to choose a particular theory and defend it, but to put all the theories he mentioned on the table and engage in deep, protracted dialog about all of them. The U.K. is presently enduring a horrible winter in which people are freezing to death, losing jobs, police and fire personnel are being laid off by the hundreds, and at the same time, the nation is facing the same severity of economic meltdown now occurring throughout many other industrialized nations. All of this is happening in the vicinity of Rob’s local place, and one does not need to be an economist to understand that conditions are becoming increasingly dire all across Europe. Transition initiatives in all parts of the world will ultimately find themselves confronted by these grim economic realities, and they should be talking about them with as much focus as they are directing toward Peak Oil and climate change. As frightening as the consequences of Peak Oil will be, the consequences of a global economic collapse are beginning to bring similar or worse realities to our doors with dizzying speed. In fact, currency wars, gargantuan amounts of debt, and a worldwide crisis in food production and food prices—all of which are happening now, may ultimately make the consequences of Peak Oil seem anticlimactic.

All of this leads up to a statement by Rob that I find appalling: “I get a sense from how Michael builds his case in his article that he has drawn together all the very worst forecasts of everything and used that to underpin his case for ‘Deep Transition’.” Yet in just a few sentences below, Rob admits that he finds the facts regarding climate change “terrifying.” He then states: “I don’t think that one needs to exaggerate threats and try and terrify people into a sense of urgency. The facts are motivating enough on their own. Indeed there is lots of research showing that bombarding people with terrifying information is far more likely to lead to a Flight/Fight/Freeze response than to constructive engagement. It is rarely an effective approach to engaging people in my experience.”

This reveals a reality that for me is profoundly disturbing among some members of Transition initiatives, namely, an unwillingness to deeply analyze the meaning of the word “transition.” It comes from a sixteenth-century Latin word which means “to cross over.” If one is crossing over something, it is important to understand what one is crossing from and what one is crossing to. Therefore, I personally find the word “transition” by itself an inadequate description of our current planetary predicament . That is why in my work, I incessantly use the words, collapse, transition, and Great Turning, the latter term used by Joanna Macy and David Korten. The historian in me finds it necessary to look at where we have been, where we are in this moment, and not just where we would like to be in the future. The entire process, which I choose to call an evolutionary leap for the human species, occurs in stages, and let’s not delude ourselves: At the moment there is much more collapse going on than transition even though it is difficult to know exactly where on ends and the other begins.

At the close of the first decade of the twenty-first century, we are experiencing the collapse of industrial civilization. No matter how much we may want to call it “transition”, we are profoundly fooling ourselves if we are unwilling to use the “C” word, as I have found many members of Transition are. One of the hallmarks of industrial civilization is its enculturation into idealism, denial, and frantic addiction to progress. We love the rebirth, but we absolutely refuse to talk about the death that makes it possible. Oh isn’t this lovely—we’re “transitioning.” Never mind that our entire way of life is dying. Never mind how we actually feel about that in our guts and in our hearts. Whistle a happy tune because we’re “transitioning.”

I am an enthusiastic supporter of holding a positive vision for the future, but not unless I am also willing to stare down the reality of the collapse of civilization and all of the adversity that will entail. Here in the U.S. we are shamefully addicted to positive thinking as the author and social critic, Barbara Ehrenreich notes in her 2010 book Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. In it she argues that positive thinking in American culture is believing that the world is shaped by our wants and desires and that by focusing on the good, the bad ceases to exist. Ehrenreich believes this notion has permeated our society and that the refusal to acknowledge that bad things could happen is in some way responsible for the current financial crisis. She, of course, attributes that crisis to many other causative factors as well but notes that positive thinking has become an integral aspect of corporate and popular culture. American culture is deeply afflicted with the delusion that we are exceptional and entitled and will always prevail in the face of hardship, and this delusion, I believe, fuels the sense of urgency conveyed by Michael in his article.

Thus I adamantly disagree with Rob when he states that “the facts are motivating enough on their own” to cause us to incisively grasp the severity of our predicament. This is an unequivocally false assumption borne out by the level of denial that still dominates the psyches of humanity both in and out of the Transition movement—a reality that lies at the heart of industrial civilization. Because he doesn’t seem to understand this, Rob defends some aspects of industrial civilization as advantageous:

Also, there are some elements of Michael’s analysis that don’t seem to stand up to historical analysis. For example, he writes that “industrial civilisation destroys communities”. While on the one level this could be argued to be the case from a Robert Puttnam/Happiness Index analysis, it is also important to note that at present, industrial civilisation is, for much of the world, the only thing that feeds, clothes, employs and heats and cools billions of people. Yes it is deeply flawed, yes it is highly oil vulnerable, yes it is pushing the biosphere to the edge of collapse, yes it is grossly unequally distributed, but is Transition, at this point, in any position to take over and run an alternative infrastructure? To argue that ‘industrial civilisation destroys communities’ is hugely over-simplistic.

First of all, a clarification. It was David Orr, a Post-Carbon Institute Fellow, who first stated that industrial civilization destroys communities. While it is true that industrial civilization provides those things mentioned in the above paragraph, what Rob is not addressing and what Michael seems to be attuned to is the paradigm of industrial civilization—the assumptions, demands, roles, and fundamental tenets thereof. Few would counter the reality that industrial civilization has provided mindboggling advantages for the human species. Because of it, people walk on the moon, penicillin has saved millions of lives, and you are reading these words on the internet. But if we do not thoroughly, deeply, assiduously explore the price that each of us has paid for these benefits, we will lack the capacity to appreciate the extent of our predicament and the urgency inherent in it. For this reason Michael states:

We will need to tell and retell the story of how we got into this predicament. It would be the story of the rise of the Industrial Growth Society, and how it has deeply wounded every single human living today, and how it has devastated the entire biosphere. It would be the story of how we’re learning that the Industrial Growth Society—in the form of economic globalization—is the culprit that has been pushing us to the brink of The Long Emergency, the brink of economic collapse, even the brink of civilization’s collapse.

On Page 79 of the Transition Handbook, at the beginning of the chapter “The Heart,” one reads:

I think alongside an understanding of the issues, it is important not to pretend that we can keep our awareness of these issues on a purely intellectual “head” level, but that we need to address the “heart” too, acknowledging that this is disturbing information, that it affects us, and that how it affects us in turn shapes how we respond—or don’t.

Later on the same page, we read, “Ultimately, at the heart of this section is the understanding that the scale of this transition requires particular inner resources, not just an abstract intellectual understanding.”

Yet throughout this entire section “the heart” is not defined. What is it? Obviously, in this context, it means much more than the physical organ. Thus I must reflect on the irony that when Rob states in the second paragraph of his article that Michael’s use of the word “sacred” is never defined, the Transition Handbook has never really defined “heart” except intuitively. We have clues in that particular section of the Handbook, but no explicit definition. So I suspect that if Rob wants to fully comprehend what is meant by “sacred,” he would do well to deeply contemplate the ambiguous term “heart.”

At its inception, the Transition movement went to great lengths to avoid a reference to the sacred or spirituality. At that time, this circumvention was probably appropriate. The point Michael is trying to make, it seems, is that because Transition and the world are evolving, such avoidance is no longer congruent with humanity’s dire predicament which now necessitates digging deeper into the core of the human species.

I began researching Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse in 2002, and in 2007, well in advance of the unleashing of an official Transition movement, I came to understand that the ramifications of these were so enormous that they were literally challenging our species to look more incisively than ever before in human history not only at its place in relation to the earth community, but into its very essence. In fact, I realized that these daunting challenges would ultimately confront humans with the fundamental question of what it means to be a human being inhabiting planet earth. It became increasingly clear to me that these challenges were no longer simply challenges of energy, climate, economics, or politics, but that in fact, they were profoundly existential. I came to understand that if we follow the reverberations of them into the farthest reaches of the human psyche we will confront something greater than the human ego and the rational, linear mind. In fact, we will confront the mystery at our core and at the core of the human community at large. Thus, I began viewing the collapse of industrial civilization not as a calamity befalling the human species, but rather as an opportunity for humanity to become a uniquely new species—that as a result of navigating the loss of the way of life as it had known, it would become a species that could never again permit the kind of existence on this planet that industrial civilization has created.

Consequently, in 2009 I published Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse. I actually felt reluctant to publish the book because I assumed it would be ignored at best and reviled at worst. Too depressing, too truthful, too demanding? Much to my surprise, Sacred Demise has been widely read around the world and touted as a book that offers tremendous inspiration and motivation at the same time that it clearly elucidates collapse, transition, and the Great Turning.

So now you may ask, what do I mean by “sacred”? For me, the word simply means “something greater” that is at the core of humanity and the earth community. The mathematical cosmologist, Brian Swimme speaks of conscious self-awareness, that is to say, the universe being conscious of itself through the human species. To grasp the implications of this notion, we need only ask a few simple questions: What would our world be like if human beings understood and lived as if they are the universe being conscious of itself? What would be the implications in energy, environment, economics, health, law, education, human relationships, and relationships between humans and non-humans?

The dictionary offers many definitions of sacred; one of them is set apart. We speak of “sacred time,” “sacred places,” and sometimes ask, “Is nothing sacred?” Perhaps some part of us knows that completely irrespective of religious dogma, there is something in each of us that is “set apart”—-that cannot be touched by and is in fact greater than any of the challenges we face. And therefore, I must disagree with Rob when he states:

For me, if Transition has done one thing well over the past 4 years, it has been the designing of an approach that comes uncluttered by much of the baggage that has encumbered environmental responses over the past 30 years. These responses have often been perceived as being smug, judgmental and against lots of stuff without a very clear idea of what it is for. The Transition idea has spread into businesses, organisations, Councils, the media and so on, as an idea that is simple to understand and accessible to people from all manner of mindsets. Making a central and explicit connection with the ‘Sacred’ would be a sure-fire way to consign Transition back to the left-field, far away from businesses and communities everywhere.

Peter Senge, an American scientist and director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management, one of the world’s noted masters of organizational development utilizes “the sacred” in much of his work with businesses worldwide. Like Rob, he speaks of the “head, heart, and hands” approach to our humanity. In Kosmos Journal Senge writes:

…head, heart, and hands. People have said it in many different ways. Chinese culture has three different traditions: Taoism, which is physically based; Confucianism, which is relational or the social philosophy of the heart; and Buddhism, which is more mentally centered.

We have a tremendous imbalance in our schools with so much emphasis on the pure development of the intellect. Rationalism is the dominant worldview today. The primary example of this is the economic worldview that basically says no person does anything unless self-interest is involved and the benefits exceed the costs. It’s not very enlightened or thrilling, but that’s rational-economic man.

Also we are aware that we are part of nature. We are physical. We live in a body, and that is in a process of continual construction, so we are tied to the unfolding of the universe. Every seven years every cell in the body is replaced. We have a very deep sense of connection to nature. I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t had a profound experience in nature. So that kind of naturalism or physicalism is a critical part of our nature. I also think that learning is nature. The best definition of learning I know is Tom Johnson’s: “Learning is a process of discovering and embodying nature’s patterns.” What is walking? It is discovering and embodying a pattern of mobility that nature makes possible for this particular physiology. Humanism, the third worldview, points to our life as a journey of becoming a human being, which includes but goes beyond the physical and the mental aspects of existence.

I quote Senge as an example of an increasing number of high profile individuals in businesses and organizations who view the sacred as an integral aspect of optimum functioning in their endeavors. Yet another example is the Holacracy model, the motto of which is “liberating the soul of organizations.” Thus to assume that “Making a central and explicit connection with the ‘Sacred’ would be a sure-fire way to consign Transition back to the left-field, far away from businesses and communities everywhere” is probably a very inaccurate assumption. Increasingly, American businesses and organizations are incorporating aspects of “the sacred” in their leadership training models.

Rob tells us that the word “sacred” would be divisive among Christian and Muslim groups and that atheists and agnostics would be alienated. On the contrary, that has not been my experience. In fact, in workshops I have conducted on my book Sacred Demise and in coaching sessions and conversations I have had with individuals who identify as Christian, agnostic, or atheist, I have witnessed in them a profound interest in exploring and experiencing the sacred in nature. Often, this interest leads to a more profound exploration of inner transition—yes, “deep transition.”

Moreover, what I notice in my work with Transition and Transition-related functions is that there is an insatiable hunger at the core of most of the people I encounter for the sacred in relation to the Transition model. They consistently report that their connection with the sacred buoys and inspires them, enhances their resilience, and helps them navigate the losses that seem ubiquitous in the current declining milieu. Most importantly, people report that they have grown weary of charts, graphs, and scientific articles on Peak Oil, climate change, and global economic collapse and while they are looking at these issues head-on and working hard in their Transition initiatives to make their communities resilient, they now crave a deeper sense of meaning and purpose and a rich relationship with the sacred and the entire earth community.

As Rob notes, we are well into the end of the age of oil, and climate change realities are “terrifying.” Converging with these two crises is a global financial catastrophe that shows every indication of worsening. As humans confront the severe consequences of these concurrent crises, which are likely to play out differently in different places, what preparation is the Transition model offering us to navigate the unprecedented emotional and spiritual trauma that is already manifesting in many parts of the world? Suicide and depression rates are dramatically elevated in all parts of the industrialized world. Energy descent action plans, awareness raising, and reskilling—all of the superb logistical strategies that the Transition model provides are necessary for enhancing our physical survival, but they are woefully inadequate for addressing what is likely to be a planetary crisis in meaning among our species. The Transition model has provided a skeleton for this preparation with its heart and soul aspect. Going forward from here, we must now focus on the sacred by adding flesh to these bones, and each initiative will do this differently. In the process, we “reskill” the human interior for the daunting journey of collapse, transition, and Great Turning.

I feel blessed to be part of a heart and soul group that has met regularly here in Boulder, Colorado for over a year. We have evolved and continue to evolve by experimenting with new practices in addition to utilizing a book study as a springboard for our discussions. Among the members of our group, most of whom are deeply involved in other aspects of Transition, the hunger for a safe place to share feelings about collapse and transition is palpable, and in the process of discussion, we are building nurturing, supportive relationships.

According to Rob, Michael asserts that “it is our belief if you’re not spiritually connected to the Earth and understand the spiritual reality of how to live on Earth, it’s likely you will not make it.” He argues that this approach would permanently alienate a massive proportion of the people we’re trying to reach. What must be noted, however, is that it is not Michael who makes this assertion but rather the Native American elder, Floyd Crow Westerman, quoted in Michael’s article. In this statement, Westerman succinctly captures the fundamental wisdom of indigenous traditions whose “transition” model kept them thriving for thousands of years. Although indigenous cultures are not utopias and have their own issues to deal with, their lived experience throughout the world has been that disconnection from the sacred in nature has mitigated against survival and has facilitated the creation of the paradigm of industrial civilization.

There can be no Great Turning without the collapse of the endless growth model and a transition from that model to a new paradigm and a new culture. As much as we all wish for a seamless transition, reality dictates that we will not “tiptoe through the tulips” of a Transition movement into resilience and self-sufficiency without great suffering and painful loss. Anyone who pretends otherwise or inserts earplugs upon hearing this statement is greatly deluding him/herself.

Yet this demise of an earth-murdering, soul-murdering paradigm is nothing if not sacred—set apart, unique, and resonant with the core of our humanity and the wisdom of all other species whose human-caused misery may be alleviated as the structures and systems of industrial civilization disintegrate.

Unfortunately, what I hear in Rob’s critical response is a great deal of fear of that which can only be partially defined because it is inherent in a great mystery which demands that we recover from our addiction to Western, Cartesian, rational, linear thinking. While I do not advocate disowning our phenomenal left-brain capacities, they are insufficient and woefully inadequate in the face of the species-transforming upheaval that is profoundly shifting the tectonic plates of the human soul and perhaps the earth itself.

And so it is that another way of putting those letters S-A-C-R-E-D together comes in the form of the word S-C-A-R-E-D. To open ourselves to something greater and something beyond the rational, scientific mind—something that cannot be contained within the bounds of our “civilized” paradigm, is indeed scary. We must have compassion for ourselves when we are afraid to go there, yet we must find the courage to do so. Feeding our addiction to the rational and the optimistic is understandable because of our enculturation. As a result of it, we may fear that if we entertain the deeper meaning of words like “sacred” or “spiritual,” we will become irrational, dogmatic ideologues. Many of us have witnessed the irreparable damage done by organized religions throughout history, and such words may remind us of it.

Additionally, I sense from Rob’s comments a distinct fear of how Transition is going to appear to the rest of the world. While on the one hand this concern is legitimate, it presents a very tricky edge which if not skillfully navigated could lead or perhaps has already led to a kind of old paradigm corporatism. In other words, one can fret so much about how one is perceived that one soon finds oneself in a black hole of constant image management. A personal story may be appropriate.

As stated above, I have been researching what have come to be known as “Transition issues” since 2002. When I first began writing and speaking about them, I was perceived as nothing less than certifiably psychotic. Today, at least 80% of what I forecasted is now our current reality, and I frequently hear from people who want to apologize to me for their derision of the information I shared. Hundreds of other researchers were also addressing these issues at that time and long before—people like Colin Campbell, Mike Ruppert, Dale Allen Pfeiffer, Megan Quinn Bachman, Richard Heinberg, Vicki Robin, to name only a few, and now standing on the threshold of 2011, we have all been transformed from prophets of “doom and gloom” to very accurate historians. We could have chosen instead to obsess about our images and become silent. Certainly some people did choose to do just that because it was too risky to do otherwise, and that was and is everyone’s right. However, I believe that the Transition network should concern itself much less with image and political correctness and emphasize the kind of reskilling and preparation for which people in one’s local place are crying out. If that includes a hunger for “deep Transition,” then so be it. Subsequently, as the consequences of economic collapse, Peak Oil, and climate change intensify, the naysaying masses are likely to be approaching Transition in droves for assistance. This is not to say that image is totally irrelevant, but under the influence of a paradigm which is mostly about image, with very little substance, we must be extremely cautious when establishing our priorities.

Thus, it may be that humanity now finds itself on the edge of a precipice—pushed to that edge by the collapse of the old paradigm, but terrified to either leap or scale the sides of the cliff for fear of losing our intellectual footing. Neither move will be easy because another word comprised of these letters S-A-C-R-E-D, with the addition of one more letter is S-C-A-R-R-E-D—a word that describes all of us who have managed to navigate the wounding of the endless growth, slash, burn, pillage, and plunder paradigm. Yet we must not allow our fear and wounding to preclude a deeper exploration of the sacred.

One aspect of the scarring is either/or thinking which may for example conclude that if people are hungering for “deep Transition” what they were experiencing before was “shallow Transition.” Fully grasping the concept of evolution precludes making such binary judgments. Whether we name it “deep” or “shallow” is irrelevant. What matters is that the course of events in the past three years is now dictating a fresh, new approach that does indeed place inner transition at the core. Is the Transition model sufficiently expansive for this endeavor? Are its creators, caretakers, and collaborators willing to confront their scare and their scars sufficiently so that a discerning exploration of the sacred will enable an evolutionary leap for Transition and the human species?

Carolyn’s forthcoming book is Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Handbook For Inner Transition, available in January, 2011. Please stay tuned to her website for a specific release date. www.carolynbaker.net