THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT: HOPE VS. MINDSET
By Carolyn Baker
A friend for whom I have a great deal of respect and admiration recently challenged me on my incessant hope-bashing stance and gave me some food for thought which has caused me to reframe the concept of “hope” in my own mind in a way that I can live with. What I cannot live with is a definition of “hope” that externalizes it-that fosters denial and a false and naïve anticipation that government, religion, or to quote Lincoln, “the better angels of our nature” will somehow save humanity from slamming with lethal velocity into the brick walls of our own making-climate chaos, global energy catastrophe, planetary economic meltdown, population overshoot, species extinction and die-off—or nuclear holocaust.
The iconoclastic and cynical James Howard Kunstler is fond of mocking people who ask for “hope” and insists that any hope we have in the face of the end of the world as we know it (EOTWAWKI) must come from within. I’m not sure what that means to Kunstler, but I’m getting clearer about what it means to me.
Naïve hope takes myriad forms and from my perspective one example is the hope that impeachment of Cheney and Bush is even possible. And I must add that Bush has not lost his “brain” with the departure of Rove. Who needs a brain when Darth Vader is the real man behind the curtain and has more political and economic power in the United States government than the average American can even imagine? Another example of false hope is faith in the U.S. political system and the possibility that clean elections exist, not to mention the hope that one will even happen in 2008. Other “hopes” include: the hope that the Democrats will finally find their spine, that the economy will improve without the working and middle classes being eviscerated by a financial meltdown as catastrophic or worse than the Great Depression, that technology will solve the energy dilemma, that moving to another country guarantees personal safety and human liberty, that the human race can exist for another century without a nuclear exchange, that a global spiritual awakening will occur in time to transform the human race and avert catastrophe.
As long as we are hoping for any of these, we are assuming a passively reactive position. Conversely, a pro-active mindset is willing to own that the paradigm upon which the empire is based is not only shallow, wanton, mindless, and infantilizing, but ultimately toxic-mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. A truly pro-active mindset comes down to the question that film maker Tim Bennett leaves us with at the end of “What A Way To Go: Life At The End Of Empire” which is: “WHO do I want to be as the world as I know it comes to an end?” Do I want to find myself literally or metaphorically like a 2005 New Orleans resident crouched on one tiny dry corner of my rooftop waiting for a government helicopter to rescue me from an inundated house, or do I want to see the hurricane coming and take myself to another location, that is, another mindset? Do I want to assume that somehow citizens of empire can keep a show on the road that should be canceled and run out of town? Do I want to abdicate personal responsibility because I’ve been taught from childhood to be a good citizen and vote in elections because two different political parties exist, and I live in one of the few countries on earth where I have a “real” choice between them? Do I want to kick and scream against the death of the world as I know it, or embrace that death so that something else has a chance to be born-even if I’m not alive to witness the birth?
Specifically, the mindset to which I’m referring is one that understands and feels in the marrow of one’s bones that the life/death/rebirth cycle is as inherent in one’s existence as breath itself. We can talk about collapse-and we must-but we can also re-frame it into the broader concept of life/death/rebirth. No, this does not have to be some airy-fairy, sweet-lemon rationalization that ultimately produces a new form of denial. Perhaps taking a moment to ponder birth will be helpful. Birth is bloody, uncertain, scary, painful, exhausting, and usually requires more courage, stamina, strength, and perseverance than most women ever thought they had. And—I cannot think of a better description of the collapse of empire.
This birth-giving mindset has been stolen from us by empire and replaced with obedience to government; trust in economic, social, and political systems; the perception of ourselves as consumers who are entitled to be comfortable and stress-free with access to the latest technological toys which make our lives fun, exciting, and painless. As I write these words, I recall an email I received earlier today from a woman in South Africa who has to rely on an “if-y” dial-up internet connection and who thanked me for my recent articles on collapse, adding that living among impoverished native South Africans reminds her daily of how Americans will be forced to live during and after collapse.
I strongly recommend an interview with Joanna Gabriel of Ashland, Oregon entitled “Who Am I In A Post-Petroleum World?”, which offers an extraordinary articulation of collapse as opportunity for rebirth or in her words, a crisis “which is forcing us to create the kind of world we wanted all the time anyway.”
A great American poet, William Stafford, wrote a poem that could not be more appropriate for this moment entitled “A Ritual To Be Read To Each Other.” I promise you that if you read and ponder this poem every day for one week, you will find yourself moving farther away from hope and closer to mindset.
A Ritual To Be Read To Each Other
by William Stafford, from “The Darkness Around Us Is Deep”
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the
and following the wrong god home we may miss
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.
And as elephants parade holding each
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to
the signals we give—-yes or no, or maybe—-
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
The poem begins with a warning about what we risk if we do not engage in deep listening and truth-telling with each other: We may follow the pattern that others made and then follow the wrong god home and miss our star. The small (and enormous) betrayals of us by our culture have deeply wounded us, and like elephants in a parade, we need to hold onto each other lest our mutual lives become lost, and the surest way to become lost is to “know what occurs but not recognize the fact.” As Stafford reminds us at the end of the poem, it is important that awake people be awake or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep. We must be constantly vigilant and support each other in remaining vigilant so that we do not fall back into comfortable slumber. The signals must be clear because the darkness around us is deep-so deep in fact, that we dare not settle for anything less than mindset.
That means voluntarily, intentionally stepping into collapse-physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, not allowing it to be something that “just happens” to us, but an opportunity that we embrace, despite all the suffering it will entail for ourselves and the people around us. As I listen to the various economic pundits discuss the current stock market meltdown, I notice how they consistently speak of “the opportunities” that exist in the midst of the grim financial landscape. Like financial investing, there are no guarantees that our investment in the opportunities of collapse will prove to be advantageous, and like investing, our willingness to step into collapse involves risk. But the choice is ours: Do we invest in mindset, or do we rely on hope? Hope which serves no practical purpose except guaranteeing that collapse will be nothing more momentous for us than the end of the world as we have known it.
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