What a joy to have the gathered wisdom of Carolyn Baker and Andrew Harvey on how to respond to the crisis of our time (or, as it’s called in Hindu cosmology, the Kali Yuga). As authors they share generous nuggets not only of their own earlier works, but also those of such elders as Chris Hedges, Carl Jung, Naomi Klein, Joanna Macy, Dean Walker, and Marion Woodman.
Of course they write extensively about the current U.S. President, and also about the mindset and social conditions that made his regime possible. The authors foresee dire times. As a friend of mine said with a big helping of irony, in the midst of destruction in Houston, of Hurricane Irma, and of western wildfires: “thank goodness that climate change is only an elitist hoax.”
The response of the authors is sprinkled with words such as “divine,” “grace,” and “sacred.” And Harvey is famous for his work on “sacred activism.” But agnostics (including much of the millennial generation) should not be put off because in the book “sacred” can be taken, in places, as meaning no more than “set apart” or beyond ordinary reality. A diversity of readers can appreciate the wisdom, even in good times, of getting beyond the egoistic self and attaining a larger view.
This book is a direct challenge to mainstream U.S. social values. In place of consumerism, it praises simple living. In place of “cocooning,” it celebrates community, “trusted allies,” and “reconnection.” In place of corporatism and political corruption , it calls for democracy. In place of looking out for number one, it advises the merits of service to others. In place of the dumbing-down of a TV culture, the book returns to the virtue of critical thinking based on, you know, knowledge and facts.
The first word of the title, Savage Grace, is a word once freely applied to people who were also called primitive, fit only to be ruled, exploited economically and meanwhile converted to European religion In contrast, the authors find much wisdom in indigenous cultures, such as connection with others and with the earth.
Savage Grace can be read as an anthology of reporting on some of the wisest observers of what Joanna Macy calls the “Great Turning,” including earlier books by the authors. For example, together the authors have already collaborated on Return to Joy. Harvey has recently produced The Hope, and Evolutionary Love Relationships (with Chris Saade). Baker has given us Collapsing Consciously, Love in the Age of Apocalypse. and Dark Gold: The Human Shadow and the Global Crisis.
One of the great values of Savage Grace is its emphasis on encounters with what Jung called the shadow, the subject of a workshop given by Baker. Instead of projecting on others qualities of ourselves that are ordinarily denied and relegated to the unconscious, we can become aware of and integrate these “dark” urges and patterns, in what Jung depicted as part of possible maturation.
On the book’s front cover is a portrait of Kali, a portrait that perhaps looks less like a symbol of the age of dissolution than like an off-color image of a Vogue model with her tongue stuck out, but perhaps the extremes of Hindu spirituality need to be softened for a Western audience. The text of the book is unremittingly fierce. Without trying to predict details of the future, it imagines the possibility of terrible destruction, in part as a result of climate change.
In one place there are five scenarios. The most dire is the end of all life on earth, even of one-celled organisms. The next worst is this: “Modern civilization collapses, the planet is profoundly changed, much human and animal population is destroyed, some humans survive to seed the next churning of the human experiment in the post-apocalyptic world.”
But action doesn't depend on what might happen. The authors of Savage Grace want us to do the right thing, regardless of what occurs. In their previous book, Return to Joy, the authors advise seeking not “happiness,” a Jeffersonian goal, but a state closer to such virtues as equanimity and compassion, plus resistance to evil and devotion to service.
At a time when much of a major U.S. political party, a party in control of all three branches of the national government, denies climate science, weakens regulation of fossil fuel purveyors, and withdraws from an international accord intended to slow climate change, Savage Grace is much needed. The trick is to attract readers who do not agree with its premises and who can learn from the book. Meanwhile, it will speak eloquently to those who do agree but have not known how to proceed.
(Disclosure: This reviewer is grateful to Baker for her daily digest of real news, and to Harvey for lectures on the poet Rumi, which he audited at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Also, during the 1980s the reviewer worked on citizen diplomacy as did the dedicatee of Savage Grace, Joanna Macy, and her late husband Fran.)