Bill Wilson (more commonly known as Bill W.) was co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, the group that originated the Twelve Steps….
By Carolyn Baker
Simulposted with Speaking Truth to Power
“The end of everything we call life is close at hand and cannot be evaded.”
–H.G. Wells, 1946
I recently received an email from a reader, frustrated with my insistence on holding a vision of what is possible alongside the dismal, inevitable current realities of civilization’s collapse. Admonishing me to bear in mind America’s Oprah and NASCAR world view and therefore abdicate any sense of optimism I might have, this reader accused me of suggesting that we should 12 Step our way through Armageddon. Rather than being offended, however, I was overcome with gratitude for this reader’s image, frustrated with me as he may be, because in spite of the regular “wordsmithing” that I do as a writer, I always feel a sense of relief and validation when someone else gives words that I may not yet have for what I’ve been thinking, feeling, or doing.
With the image of the 12 Steps in mind, I decided to look more closely at them in relation to the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI) and notice how they might in fact be useful not only for recovering from addiction, but for navigating Armageddon. At first I felt shy about applying the Steps to the collapse of civilization, thinking that my readers would think I had seriously gone around the bend, but then someone sent me the “12 Steps Of Peak Oil” from a Vancouver newspaper. At that point, I realized how relevant the Steps might be not only to Peak Oil, but to Peak Civilization itself. Seasoned 12 Steppers argue that despite their 1930s origin, the Steps are applicable to any situation-no matter how monumental, and the collapse of civilization is about as big as it gets. So let’s take a closer look.
Step 1: We admitted we were powerless - that our lives had become unmanageable.
Step 1 requires that I admit my powerlessness over the situation with which I’m confronted. Maybe you’re thinking, “Well hey, that’s no problem-did I ask for this debacle? All those years that I was an upstanding citizen and voted in elections and had faith in the American dream? What was that for? I did all the right things and now we’re looking at Armageddon. Of course, I know that I’m powerless.”
But that’s not exactly what I mean by admitting that one is powerless. Many of us are stockpiling food, learning skills, busily relocating to other parts of the country or world, investing in precious metals, and so much more, but let’s not forget that no matter how much we prepare, we’re ultimately powerless over the outcome. While we may know that intellectually, letting it sink into the gut is a whole different story.
Powerless means that we don’t know the outcome and can’t control it, and that’s really scary. I mean what it really all comes down to is the “D” word, you know: Death. And even if we end up celebrating a 100th birthday eating soy cupcakes with our friends in some groovy ecovillage, collapse means that we’ll be encountering many more endings than we can now imagine, beginning with the end of our current way of life no matter how small our footprint may be.
Control freaks won’t do well with TEOTWAWKI; flexibility, on the other hand, is an essential attribute for survival. No matter how “manageable” our lives might be in the current moment, the collapse of empire is certain to challenge that and will compel us to align with others, give and receive support, trust our intuition as well as our intellect, and be willing to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. As a 12 Stepper might say, true empowerment lies in admitting one’s powerlessness.
Step 2: Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
People entering recovery often have a terrible time with this one. First of all, they feel they might have to buy into all that God stuff, but worse, they feel as if in order to recover, they have to admit that they are insane.
Let me hasten to emphasize that I too recoil at the use of the word “God” and wish to define “power greater than ourselves” as broadly as possible. Over the decades, countless atheists have benefited from using the 12 Steps for addiction recovery precisely because they were able to do the same. Atheists, agnostics, and feminists will have a much easier time with the Steps if they widen their concept of Higher Power to something non-theistic and gender-neutral.
Insanity” as the Steps define it simply means that one does not recognize anything larger or more significant than one’s own ego. Simply put, “something greater” could be one’s concept of nature or one’s confidence in the human spirit or anything else that one considers more benevolently powerful than oneself.
The 12 Steps inherently fly in the face of the ethics of civilization, based as those values are on the supremacy of the human ego-a pre-eminence that consciously or unconsciously deifies itself and whatever material gain it can amass unto itself at the expense of everyone and everything else. Now what could be more insane than that, and isn’t everyone reading these words interested in transforming that paradigm into something more compassionate and sustainable? 12 Step programs further define insanity as doing the same thing that doesn’t work over and over again, each time expecting different results. I can think of myriad examples of this in the culture of empire, starting with, “Maybe this time, if we just elect the right candidate for president then….”
12 Stepping into Armageddon begins with thoroughly examining how the culture of empire has inculcated us on every level and in every aspect of our lives. It means understanding how empire has programmed us to believe that we are all-powerful and that if we just do all the right things, we will succeed because our ego needs are the raison d’etre for our existence. When we are unable to recognize our powerlessness and resist acknowledging something greater than ourselves, we also rebel against the limits that life on this planet demand of us. We walk around as little “gods” and “goddesses” believing that we can consume whatever we like whenever we like at the expense of all other species as well as our own.
Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to that power.
OK, breathe. Remember-you don’t have to use the word “God”, and this Higher Power thing is gender-neutral.
This Step is particularly challenging because it requires action. Steps 1 and 2 just require me to admit something, but Step 3 asks me to DO something-something repugnant to the children of empire. It means I have to surrender my will to that “something greater”. Eeeeeeew!
Step 3 is where the rubber meets the road-or not. In order to continue with the rest of the Steps, and therefore recovery, if that’s what I’m using them for, or navigating collapse, as the case may be, I have to defer to a greater wisdom. What’s even more distasteful is that I’m asked to surrender not only my will but my life.
Well, here we are again back to the dreaded “D” word. Anyone who has been researching and preparing for collapse knows the precarious position of the planet and the human race. If 200 species per day are going extinct, then the bottom line is that we are all staring our own mortality in the face as never before in human history. Collapse is, above all, forcing us to confront our personal mortality and that of our loved ones which is the principal reason so few are willing to deal with it. Who would sign up to feel that vulnerable? However, if we can allow that particular emotion, it becomes more possible to surrender our will and our life because what else do we have to lose?
The logical progression of the Steps is simply that since I’m powerless over the outcome, and there is something greater than my human ego and my five physical senses, it behooves me to consider abdicating my attempt to control what my finite humanity cannot. For this reason, I find that Step 3 relinquishes me from having “hope” because hope is ultimately another attempt to control what I cannot.
Step 4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves
So now that I know that my ego can’t manage my life, and I’m willing to surrender the outcome of my life and the world as I have known it to a power greater than myself, I have to look more deeply within. If we are using the Steps in relation to TEOTWAWKI, then a moral inventory could be a somewhat different experience than if we’re applying the steps in relation to an addiction. Nevertheless, TEOTWAWKI is not unrelated to the addiction issue. In fact, humanity’s addiction to material gain and economic growth has resulted in a delusional disregard for the earth’s limits. An expression often heard among 12 Steppers is “self-will run riot” which pretty much summarizes humankind’s obliviousness and even contempt toward the earth community.
But let’s define our terms. Inventory simply means taking stock of what we have and don’t have-what we may need more of or less of. The collapse of empire forces all of us, whether we consciously intend to or not, to consider our values and priorities. People losing houses, jobs, having to relocate out of necessity or by choice, finding that their pensions have suddenly evaporated or who have lost health insurance are forced to make tough decision about priorities.
Those of us who have been aware of collapse for some time and have been preparing for it are faced not only with making decisions such as the ones mentioned above, but are also compelled to look more deeply within to notice what qualities we need to develop in the face of collapse and which ones we may need to minimize. For example, I grew up as an only child and have lived an extremely independent life as an adult. I currently find myself working on reaching out to trusted others, making plans to live in community, and although fiercely committed to personal space and daily periods of solitude, consciously forsaking a life that is all about just me and my needs.
In so doing, I am taken to deeper layers of Step 4 as I contemplate my own part in the collapse of civilization. Although I have left a very small footprint on the earth for most of my life, I must own responsibility for the ways, no matter how small, in which I’ve polluted the ecosystem, my disconnection from the earth community, aspects of personal independence that have manifested in dysfunction, isolation, arrogance, and rationalization about my need for interdependent connection. In other words, although I’m not on the board of Monsanto, I have played a role in violating the human and more than human worlds.
Step 5. Admitted the exact nature of our wrongs.
Taking a searching and fearless moral inventory compels us to admit our errors to ourselves, to something greater, and to someone else. I begin this process by verbalizing these errors to the power greater than me and then to whomever or whatever I have harmed.
With respect to TEOTWAWKI, I must apologize to generations younger than mine for the failure of my generation to preserve and protect the earth. For example, when teaching college students about the collapse of civilization and its repercussions, I’m often confronted with, “Yeah, and it’s your fault and the fault of your generation.” Without the slightest hesitation, I wholeheartedly agree, and I tell them that I am genuinely sorry. I also point out that collapse has built up over a period of centuries and that inherent within the values of civilization were the seeds of its own demise. Nevertheless, I have made choices in my lifetime that reinforced those values.
Step 6. Were entirely ready to have all these defects of character removed.
Defects of character? What is this?
It’s easy to become defensive around this Step unless one takes it to the next level. I define “defects of character” as those aspects of my personality that have resulted from the programming of empire, or my wounds, if you will. These are the qualities that I have taken on while growing up in empire culture which mitigate against the earth community and my connection with it. I’m very ready to have those removed, but I’m also aware that that means I may need to change my lifestyle, perhaps in drastic ways. Speaking only for myself, I need to look at my appetite for meat (which I’ve almost extinguished); my tendency to think of my own needs first even when I know I shouldn’t; my workaholism, which although greatly diminished in recent years is not entirely absent; my tendency to isolate; my quickness to judge others-the list goes on and on. None of these qualities will be useful as collapse accelerates, and I am working to transform their presence in my life which the next Step facilitates.
Step 7. Humbly asked for the shortcomings to be removed
Now I’m back to Step 3 and my relationship with “something greater”. Because I’ve surrendered the outcome to it, I can also surrender my character defects and ask them to be transformed-a word that I personally prefer over “removed” since I have come to believe that no part of me can ever be totally removed. Like energy, parts of myself can be transformed but never made to disappear.
Step 8. Made a list of all we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
While Steps 4 through 7 are about oneself, Steps 8, 9, and 10 are relational. Step 8 asks me to notice carefully who has been harmed by my empire-inflicted wounds. This definitely does not apply exclusively to people. Without meaning to, I’ve harmed animals, birds, trees, soil, water, air-myriad members of the earth community, and I need to reflect on that. In fact, even after learning about collapse and how I need to live differently, I have not changed my behavior to the extent that I want and need to. Step 8 is about willingness and paying attention.
Step 9. Made direct amends wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
So now that I’m willing to make amends, I must do so. Certainly I must make amends to the people in my life that I’ve harmed, but just as important are those members of the more than human world that I’ve overlooked, minimized, disregarded, or just simply didn’t notice. Just as a 9th Step may require me to sit down with another human whom I’ve harmed and make amends, it may also require me to spend a day in the forest, or somewhere else in nature, expressing my regrets to trees, insects, streams, birds, or other non-humans for my obliviousness to them and the countless services they perform in the ecosytem from which I benefit.
Step 10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
So Steps 6-9 are not one-shot deals. I am asked to practice them repeatedly. Inventory-taking is forever because what I have or don’t have constantly changes, and it’s important that I use both the “glass half empty” and “glass half full” approaches to my evolution. Just as I cannot successfully navigate collapse by myself, neither can I practice the Steps in isolation. I need the entire earth community in order to utilize them effectively.
Step 11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with something greater
Some readers may recoil at the words “prayer” and “meditation”, but I remind all of us of one of the key slogans of 12 Step programs which is: “Take what you like and leave the rest.” If you find yourself reacting to “prayer” and “meditation”, don’t worry about it. The point of this Step is to improve conscious contact with something greater, and how we choose to do that is far less important than that we do it. Armageddon will not be easy to navigate, but it will be impossible without a conscious, working connection with a power greater than oneself.
Step 12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Virtually every person preparing for collapse has had at least one, if not countless experiences, of attempting to share research, options, and the realities of collapse with others, only to find oneself blown off by the other person. Not unlike the individual addict who must be ready for recovery before fully applying the Steps, the people with whom we share information about TEOTWAWKI will either be ready to learn more or they will resist and maintain their head-in-the-sand posture. So we must be discreet and respectful, remembering that walking our talk (practicing these principles in all our affairs) is the most important message we can carry.
Waking up is an extraordinarily mixed blessing. With it comes tremendous clarity and joy, as well as sometimes excruciating sorrow as one witnesses more clearly civilization’s trajectory of self-and-other destruction. Just as addicts in recovery frequently experience the tragic deaths of other addicts in their lives who will not engage in the recovery process, individuals preparing for collapse invariably encounter numerous loved ones about whom they care deeply who prefer to remain asleep. I feel sorrow daily for those I know who will probably never open their eyes. But I have opened mine, and I imagine that most people reading these words have as well. I carry that and these incredibly practical Steps with me, alongside a plethora of emotions and wonderfully awake allies, as each day we journey more deeply into Armageddon.
While I do not feel optimistic about survival in the abyss into which we appear to be descending, I believe that the principles inherent in the Steps can facilitate our planting seeds that may ultimately germinate and flourish as a new paradigm lived out by some of us and our descendents who are committed to creating lifeboats of localized, sustainable living that serve the entire earth community.
Carolyn is an adjunct professor of history, a former psychotherapist, an author, and a student of mythology and ritual. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Speaking Truth to Power (http://carolynbaker.net/site/component/option,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/)