The sadness of America and the need for a new consciousness

A couple of months ago I began catching wind of a new documentary film titled What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire. It sounded intriguing so I started reading pretty much everything I could find about it on the Internet. At this point, having informed myself as much as I can by means of secondary sources, I’ve decided I definitely need to acquire a copy.

The thing that attracts me to What a Way to Go is not just the subject matter but the deep emotion that’s apparently layered into its overall sensibility. A particularly informative review by Dan Armstrong at Mud City Press describes this vividly:

“A personal commentary on the direction of modern society in the twenty-first century, WHAT A WAY TO GO is described on the back of its DVD package as ‘a middle-class white guy coming to grips with peak oil, climate change, mass extinction, population overshoot, and the demise of the American lifestyle.’ It might also be described as the non-Hollywood version of Al Gore’s documentary on climate change. This is not meant to be dismissive. Not at all. It’s an accolade. If what Gore offered was an ‘inconvenient truth,’ WHAT A WAY TO GO gives us the ‘whole truth.’ That is, Gore’s story with peak oil, unsustainable agriculture, and our mass assault on the community of life added in to fill out the picture of climbing atmospheric carbon concentrations and melting ice caps.

. . . . “Little by little, as the narrator expanded this metaphor [of a runaway train] to climate change and the economics of peak oil, I gradually understood that T.S. Bennett was not just recounting the Club of Rome’s scenario of unchecked industrial expansion and his own awakening to the meaning of it. He was revealing what he felt about the condition of our planet in a very visceral way. We all have an intellectual side that allows us to put the pieces of this story together. And we can hold this out, away from us as an abstract analysis. But there must also be a psychological response, perhaps held muted within, to the prospect of vast social upheaval brought about by egregious mismanagement of the planet. There must be deep emotions within all of us connected to this sad socio-biologic unfolding. We’re watching, to some large extent the world, but more specifically the United States face a brutal fact of life. Cheap oil held this nation together economically. The wealth, the lifestyle, our dreams. Cheap oil is now a thing of the past. America as we once knew it is dying. And there is real reason to grieve. And yet it seems denial or evasion is the more common response. That’s the problem. And perhaps why we have yet to really confront the problem head on. We aren’t truly feeling the sadness and frustration that destroying ourselves and our planet home should impart. WHAT A WAY TO GO is one man saying what he really feels about the insanity of it all. One man letting out a deep primal scream. How could this have happened while we were watching so closely? How could this have happened at all? We just filled the skies with carbon exhaust until it suffocated us and all of life with it. AGGGRHHHH!

“America has changed. It’s become a caricature of itself. The democracy has been compromised. We are a country gone to war to defend burning fossil fuels–and a way of life that has proven wasteful, foolish, and disastrous. And to face that, you must also accept that you are no longer who you thought you were, because the social premise that provided you with a belief system has proven to be false. Grief is called for. Grief is justified. We face a great turning in the ways of earthlings, and there is good reason to scream–or cry.”

So according to Armstrong (and also a number of other reviewers), the film gets its power as much from the narrator’s palpable sense of shock and grief as from the inherent gravity of the subject matter.

Armstrong notes another important point: “[T]he material is put together so artfully, with such attention to detail and with such clear emotion that it becomes something more. Mixed in with the interviews of thoughtful commentators like Richard Heinberg, Daniel Quinn, Jerry Mander, Ran Prieur, Chellis Glendinning, and Derrick Jensen, is a wonderfully edited docu-collage and prose poem. There is enough footage from the 1950s, cuts from televisions shows, commercials, movies, and grainy home movies to remind us of our own lives, our own evolution from believing baby boomers to disillusioned young adults to lost pawns in the grand chess game. Add to this, T.S. Bennett’s lyric writing, its depth, its tragic irony, his clear frustration, voiced over clips of film Americana and current events, and the viewer gets a very powerful psychological make over from the 123 minute film–with one very disheartening conclusion. The life we have just lived, the last fifty years, the height of the fossil fuel era, is headed to a dead end, a collapse. And so is the psychic infrastructure of the personalities created in that great gush of comparatively free energy. We now enter a tenuous time of social revolution. That will be impossible to dodge or ignore. And while the presiding powers are hanging on to every last penny of profit with denial and propaganda, the middle-class American sees it happening day by day. A definitive pinching in, gas prices, medical insurance, food costs, daily news of young men and women’s lives lost to war. And all the while, no one is letting up. The highways are more tightly jammed than ever. We burn more and more petroleum with each passing day. This insane lemming-like race to the edge just continues. Blindly. A contradiction to life and reason. That merits human grief and anguish. And if you don’t feel that, if you’ve missed that critical point, Bennett and Erickson’s documentary brings it into focus for you and does this powerfully, with emotion, a measure of derision, a certain resignation, and a sad refrain, ‘what a way to go.'”

I can’t help but read all of this in light of my “Doomerism and Realism” post from last week, in which I talked about my recent inner move toward toning down the shrillness of my ongoing critique of the imperialist theme park culture America has become. Armstrong’s observation that America has “become a caricature of itself” — which may or may not come directly from the film; I guess I’ll find out when I watch it — expresses my own feeling perfectly. Nor do I think the point he’s making is shrill or histrionic (something I’m sure I’ll be watching for in myself and others for a long time to come). Although I’m not a boomer but a member of Generation X, having been born in 1970 and come of age in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I feel temperamentally at one with the outlook and, at least as importantly, the emotion being described here.

Considering all this, a possible critique of the film occurs to me. Some time in the past year I read an essay — whose author and title I have now forgotten — in which the author opined that America’s mounting sense of doom, which in the past five years or so has swelled to become a distinct chorus, may be nothing more than a transient and subjective cultural moment that’s being unconsciously perpetrated by members of the boomer generation. The author speculated that since the boomers’ attitudes have come to define American culture over the past several decades owing to the sheer demographic weight of their numbers, the nation’s growing sense of doom is simply a case of boomer sensibility writ large. We’re well into the era of mass communication, in which our collective sense of self derives primarily from the mass media. The boomers are presently the gatekeepers of these media. As they enter old age and begin to sense their own mortality with newfound vividness, these people project that sensibility onto the general culture and amplify it via their control over so much of what we see and hear. So according to this analysis, what a lot of us are now sensing is not our own imminent collective death but theirs.

It’s a fascinating bit of cultural-psychological analysis, and for months now I’ve regretted my failure to note where I read it. But presently when I’m told by the reviews of What a Way to Go that the film erects its argument on the narrative backbone of a middle-aged boomer’s awakening to America’s rush toward collapse, I can’t help thinking of that other writer’s idea and wondering whether it might be in play.

Having said that, what inspired me to blog about all this is a post I discovered last week at the blog maintained by Sally C. Erickson, who produced What a Way to Go. It’s found at the film’s official website. I didn’t even know such a blog existed until last week, although I had visited the main site several times. A post from last Wednesday (June 14) titled “The Hard Bullet for Progressives to Bite” describes some of Ms. Erickson’s thoughts and emotions as she and director Timothy S. Bennett are currently preparing to take the film on the road. These thoughts dwell on the actual felt experience of life in America right now, and they ping my own thoughts and feelings so directly that I’m going to quote them at length. I especially like Ms. Erickson’s non-hysterical tone as she expresses her honest observations and accompanying sadness over what we Americans have become, since this resonates nicely with my own newly adopted resolution to pursue such thoughts in a similarly honest, as opposed to overblown , manner. In my own view this approach carries a ring of truth that largely undercuts, sidesteps, or at least qualifies the charge of psychological projection mentioned above.

Erickson writes:

“[W]e know that, besides the most clueless and insulated of the very wealthy, everyone else knows that things are not right. We all feel it. The weather’s not right. Our collective paychecks don’t go far. Our collective debt is huge and getting huger. We try to keep up a hopeful attitude. But we know things are not good. We see only the very rare politician that we like and trust, and almost never see one of those make it to Washington.

“People want to be hopeful. We want to believe what we learned in school about the miracles of science. We want to believe in the American values of innovation and progress; that we are indeed pursuing progress; and that progress will eventually make life better for everyone on the planet. People want to believe these things because people are basically good.

“What people actually experience, if they stop shopping long enough to notice, is the opposite. Lives are stressed. Work is unsatisfying. Children are unhappy. What most have to look forward to is going out to eat. Think about it. It’s a place where someone will take care of you and treat you with a modicum of respect. At least in a chain restaurant, the average person has some power. You can leave a nice tip. Or not.

. . . . “Is it possible that we can innovate enough new technology to meet the current human energy demand with non-polluting, renewable sources? None of the sources I’ve seen with reliable, holistic data say we can. William Catton, author of Overshoot, says in What a Way to Go that the way we are living now, we overshot the carrying capacity of the planet with the population size we had at the time of the Civil War. Yikes. That’s like five and a half billion people ago. Five and a half billion! That’s a lot of people. More than will fit in your new Prius. More than the local co-op grocery can feed with organic food. That would be a lot of organic ramen to come up with. This is serious.

“Even if we could find a magic energy elixir that would keep things going as they are, there are other gigantic questions that follow. Could we pull off a mass consciousness change that would ensure that we utilized that energy elixir in fair, sustainable, life-supportive ways? I don’t think so. Look around. Look at the world that has been created since the discovery of the last magic energy elixir humans got their hands on. Do you like this world where the rich get richer and richer and spiritually sicker and sicker while the poor get poorer and poorer and the shrinking middle class works longer and longer and longer? I don’t.

“We don’t need more energy. Looking for a technofix is a distraction. We need something else entirely. If more energy were going to create a saner, more spiritual, more just world, that would have happened in the last two hundred years. We’ve had our high dose of magical energy. It hasn’t helped. It’s made things worse. We’re teetering on human-caused extinction of our own species, to say nothing of the human-caused wreckage to the rest of the species already in progress. That hasn’t happened before.

“No. It’s not more energy we need. It is a consciousness change, a radical reconnection to life itself, and to one another, that we ache for.

“Some of us are kind of aware of this. We want a bunch of people to wake up, quick. We hope for that. We carpool to our jobs and we shop locally and we do the best we can. Some of us participate in protests and write emails to our congresspeople. Some of us have changed every single light bulb in our houses and recycle every scrap of paper and every aluminum can and resist all unnecessary driving. We’re hoping there will be a mass consciousness change.

“We want that so much.

“The sad possibility that Tim and I have chewed on these past three years is that there may be no mass movement. As much as we want it, there may be no gentle transition to an ecologically viable way to live harmoniously with the rest of the non-human world. We’re on a crash course and there doesn’t seem to be any widespread move to stop.”

* * * * *

If it is at all possible in plain, everyday thought and discourse to “see around our own corners,” as Nietzsche might have put it — that is, to gain a real sense of what’s happening in the world outside the boundaries of our self-enclosed subjectivities — then the above combination of calm observation informed by authentic emotion strikes me as one of the most likely ways to achieve it.

As for Ms. Erickson’s speculations about a change in consciousness, these remind me of some things said by one of my favorite writers, contemporary spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, and it’s with these that I’ll conclude this long, rambling, patchwork post. Tolle is, for my money, simply the best spiritual teacher around today. His books present the message of nondual/mystical insight with a depth, clarity, and power that I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere, and that’s really saying something since I’ve studied literally hundreds of books on religion, religious history, spirituality, consciousness, etc. Never mind that his endorsement by Oprah a few years ago, followed by the predictable marketing overkill his American publishers engaged in, may have generated the unfortunate impression that he’s just a faddish guru of the insipid New Agey/self-help variety. Never mind that Jim Carrey and a few other Hollywood celebrities have lent a superficial glamour to him by becoming prominent students of his (Carrey has actually traveled to Canada for the express purpose of learning from him). Aside from these things, this guy is the Real Deal. He not only explains the fundamental human problem — mistaken identification with thought, the mental world, the ego self — and its solution — seeing through the mistake and identifying with one’s true self in Being — with uncommon clarity, but also offers penetrating advice on how to accomplish this in actual experience (aside from which the whole thing is just one more idea, one more mental abstraction that perpetuates the problem).

Another part of his being the Real Deal is his willingness to address painful topics like, you guessed it, the sickness of modern culture. Unlike the execrable rehash of New Thought that is The Secret (which Oprah has also famously endorsed, and which teaches that Everything Is Great and You Can Have Whatever You Want), Tolle specifically and pointedly addresses the very same issue of societal-cultural collapse addressed by What a Way to Go. And like Sally Erickson in her recent blog post, he links the issue of collapse to the pressing need for us to change our collective consciousness since our present political, social, and economic institutions are direct expressions of the ego’s dysfunction. He also takes the extra step of drawing a connection between natural environmental trends — not just global warming but things that might otherwise seem unrelated to human involvement — and the collective human dysfunction.

Here’s a portion of how he says it all in his most recent book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (2005). For me these words, with their simultaneous recognition of the inevitability of collapse, the reasons behind it, and the paradoxical hope it portends, pretty much say it all:

“The ego is destined to dissolve, and all its ossified structures, whether they be religious or other institutions, corporations, or governments, will disintegrate from within, no matter how deeply entrenched they appear to be. The most rigid structures, the most impervious to change, will collapse first. This has already happened in the case of Soviet Communism. How deeply entrenched, how solid and monolithic it appeared, and yet within a few years, it disintegrated from within. No one foresaw this. All were taken by surprise. There are many more such surprises in store for us.

. . . . “A significant portion of the earth’s population will soon recognize, if they haven’t already done so, that humanity is now faced with a stark choice: Evolve or die. A still relatively small but rapidly growing percentage of humanity is already experiencing within themselves the breakup of the old egoic mind patterns and the emergence of a new dimension in consciousness.

. . . . “Ego means no more than this: identification with form, which primarily means thought forms. If evil has any reality — and it has a relative, not an absolute, reality — this is also its definition: complete identification with form — physical forms, thought forms, emotional forms. This results in total unawareness of my connectedness with the whole, my intrinsic oneness with every ‘other’ as well as with the Source. This forgetfulness is original sin, suffering, delusion. When this delusion of utter separateness underlies and governs whatever I think, say, and do, what kind of world to I create? To find the answer to this, observe how humans relate to each other, read a history book, or watch the news on television tonight.

“If the structures of the human mind remain unchanged, we will always end up re-creating fundamentally the same world, the same evils, the same dysfunction.

“The inspiration for the title of this book came from a Bible prophecy that seems more applicable now than at any other time in human history. It occurs in both the Old and the New Testament and speaks of the collapse of the existing world order and the arising of ‘a new heaven and a new earth.’ We need to understand that heaven is not a location but refers to the inner realm of consciousness. This is the esoteric meaning of the word, and this is also its meaning in the teachings of Jesus. Earth, on the other hand, is the outer manifestation in form, which is always a reflection of the inner. Collective human consciousness and life on our planet are intrinsically connected. ‘A new heaven’ is the emergence of a transformed state of human consciousness, and ‘a new earth’ is its reflection in the physical realm.’ Since human life and human consciousness are intrinsically one with the life of the planet, as the old consciousness dissolves, there are bound to be synchronistic geographic and climatic natural upheavals in many parts of the planet, some of which we are already witnessing now.

. . . . “So the new heaven, the awakened consciousness, is not a future state to be achieved. A new heaven and a new earth are arising within you at this moment, and if they are not arising at this moment, they are no more than a thought in your head and therefore are not arising at all. What did Jesus tell his disciples? ‘Heaven is right here in the midst of you’ (Luke 17:21).

“In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes a prediction that to this day few people have understood. He says, ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.’ In modern versions of the Bible, ‘meek’ is translated as humble. Who are the meek or the humble, and what does it mean that they shall inherit the earth?

“The meek are the egoless. They are those who have awakened to their essential true nature as consciousness and recognize that essence in all ‘others,’ in all life-forms. They live in the surrendered state and so feel their oneness with the whole and the Source. They embody the awakened consciousness that is changing all aspects of life on our planet, including nature, because life on earth is inseparable from the human consciousness that perceives and interacts with it. That is the sense in which the meek will inherit the earth.

“A new species is arising on the planet. It is arising now, and you are it!”

About Matt Cardin


Posted on June 19, 2007, in Psychology & Consciousness, Society & Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Sally Erickson

    Thank you for the thoughtful reflection on my blog and the addition to it with your words about Eckard Tolle’s work. It was an especially interesting insight about the possibility that boomers mounting sense of doom is because they are facing their own mortality. I actually think there is some truth in that. What A Way to Go often hits boomers right between the eyes. This is true. But perhaps is our age cohort that “gets it” so deeply because there is something so sad about leaving the world to our descendants in such awful shape with such terrible prospects. It’s a legacy we really do feel much despair about. Not because it is our lives that we can see the end of, but because we are not, in the face of our ending lives, leaving anything behind that will support the coming generations of human and non-human species. There’s something terribly wrong about that and looking at the end of our own lives gives us the courage to confront that emptiness, and perhaps, commit ourselves to at the very least have enough integrity to own our part in it and witness it and feel the sadness of it. Paradoxically perhaps there seems to be meaning in that for me. I’ve heard Tim say, if we are the cause of this major extinction event on the planet, the very least we can do is notice that.

  2. Thanks for giving light to much interesting material, as always. I like how Sally puts it in her comment, that we are depressed about the legacy we are leaving. Perhaps we are also angry about being led down this path by our elders. But I wonder if the reason that only a minority of people are experiencing these thoughts is that for most of them life is in fact not bad at all yet, has had no real impact yet from any of it, and so they mistrust the warnings, especially when some activists have pounded their shoe on the table about some mistaken ideas in the past and shot some of their own credibility down.

    Reference is made to general unhappiness and fruitless striving, to oblivious rich and slipping poor and middle class. But my guess is that this people feel this is only worse now in comparison to certain points in time. What of the U.S. of say 100 or 125 years ago? Robber barons ruled, the poor were destitute with little hope or support, middle class worked like crazy with no safety net. The great depression, the strife and war of the 1960s, everyone has lived through something they could reasonably think of as at least as bad as today, if they are focused strictly on this moment and not tomorrow. And most people are. If no one is entirely comfortable and satisfied now, when have they ever been? People complain about gasoline and food prices and health care, but who is being forced to change their way of life? Very few. Certainly not comparably to the degree they had to in the depression era. So to most of these folks there is not yet any real pressure to look deeper at the matter. Yet.

    I’ll go further and claim that less than half of people are introspective anyway. Introspective people are depressed much more often, because we think about our roles and see our errors and feel responsibility. But there are hordes out there who do not spare a moment to think about how they are part of a community, except for planning the next poker night or PTA meeting. These will never even wonder about any of the matters you raise. Even as they are washed out to sea or foraging subsistence in a wasteland, it will never occur to them to wonder whether they might have done anything differently.

  3. Cardin,

    I thank you for posting these thoughts of yours in your blog. To be honest, I feel that, in the sense of this blog post, I devolved a little over the summer. The reading of this article, as well as several other recent events, have done wonders in “waking me back up” or “evolving me” or whatever terminology you feel applicable.

    I must admit, I do find that the Biblical references to the “New Heaven” and “New Earth” hit me as being new thoughts, though when I think of this, I then think back to C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce”, in which the idea is presented that those who are bound for heaven will be doing their best to live as though heaven is present and among them. Contrarily, those who live selfish, empty lives are preparing themselves for the emptiness of the Abyss that will meet them when they pass away.

    Of course, I fear that the “new earth” that is literally referred to in Biblical literature will not happen until the End of Days, when those who have chosen God will be brought to him and those who have rejected Him will be allowed to do as they please outside of His presence. Otherwise, you have a planet where two types of people are living: The evolved creatures and the degenerates. Of course, these two creatures may not recognize each other consciously, but they will understand on some level that the other is not like them, that the other is on a different level of consciousness than he or she is and, of course, those saturated the presence of the other species will be more likely to assume the role and consciousness of their environment.

    However, I will say first that it is naturally easier to be a degenerate. There were some days this summer when I fear I had reverted back to something like what I was when I was a freshman in high school: unaware, apathetic, and oblivious. I did not do this because I really wanted to be this way; I believe that this was just a natural reaction to an overwhelming sense of despair that had taken hold of me. I suppose that the very strong possibility of the collapse of my hometown and the destruction of the positive environment in which I have matured played a very large role in this despair that had gripped me. It was just naturally easier to accept things as they were and try to forget about the painful emotions that these thoughts evoked than to face them. Escapism is one of my fallacies, one of many, and the Escapist finds comfort in the Society of Distraction.

    However, back to my original point on the Biblical literature incorporated into “A New Earth” (if I’m not careful, I shall find myself ranting…oh, wait…never mind :)). I have heard others who say that “Peace in the world starts inside yourself” and other such things. I guess that perhaps I should invest more truth in these statements than I do now; I can see that my adulthood, or at least what I consider to be my adulthood, did not begin with a triumphant fanfare or a welcome speech but rather the day when my whole attitude about life changed. I suppose that, on some level or another, a new earth really is as simple as changing your perspective and your attitude from one of self-service to one of humility and kindness. After all, that is intended to be the mark of a Christian: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4) I am continually amazed as to the level of God’s understanding of man that is expressed on so many levels in Biblical literature.

    Anyway, sorry for the rant.

    Have a good summer and I will see you in August!

  4. Perhaps the boomer’s (and everyone else’s) newfound sense of doom is simply due to improved access to information since the advent of the WWW.

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