The Five Stages of Environmental Grief
This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.
There is purportedly a Chinese curse that goes, “May you be born in interesting times.” That curse must have landed on everyone alive today! One can scarcely imagine more interesting times than we are living in now. Interesting and also fraught with unique hazards and uncertainties.
I grew up in the “duck and cover” days of the Cold War when Americans lived in constant fear of a Soviet nuclear attack. That was scary. But at least we knew then where the threat was coming from. Today, by contrast, the dangers are more diffuse, shadowy and numerous.
What is the greatest risk that we face-- a global disease pandemic, financial collapse, suitcase nuclear devices, cyber attacks, climate change, biological warfare? The point is nobody can say .
But I’ll tell you what I am most worried about in the years ahead. I can sum it up with the one word “nature.” Not the sweet, cuddly, beautiful and beneficent nature that we love to adore. No, the shrieking Earth Mother on a rampage, the Goddess ravaged and insulted and screaming for blood!
We are long overdue for a visit from this Goddess. The earth is extremely patient. It has absorbed our noxious chemicals and smoke belching power plants, our dams and our highways, our rapacious irrigation systems and our open pit mines. But by all accounts the patience of the planet is beginning to wear thin. Its ability to absorb our abuse won’t last much longer. Neither will it’s capacity to supply us with the petroleum, the food crops, the clean air and water that our modern lives depends on.
The choices that we make (or fail to make) in the next few years may determine whether the human species survives, or goes the way of the wooly mammoth and the sabre tooth tiger. So yes, these are very interesting times indeed!
However I am not convinced that to be alive today is some kind of curse, as the Chinese sage suggested. I would prefer to view it as a blessing in disguise. It is no accident that the ideogram for “emergency” in Chinese signifies “opportunity” as well. A crisis, in other words, is not just a threat, it is equally a chance to change course and to evolve as a species. An “emergency” is an opportunity for something altogether new and unexpected to “emerge.”
What will emerge from the environmental crisis? Will it galvanize humanity to find a way to live in harmony with the natural systems of the air, the water, the soil and the biosphere which support us? Or will we continue down our present suicidal path, laying waste to the earth’s limited resources and ultimately destroying our own terrestrial nest?
The jury is still out. I would like to think that we will wake up before it is too late. The only problem is that it is already too late ! The collapse of natural and biological systems is well under way. The human race has entered into what James Kunstler calls The Long Emergency . The challenge is no longer to prevent this, but to somehow manage the catastrophe.
Do you remember the movie Titanic? There was a big jolt and the lights flickered off momentarily when the boat hit the iceberg. But moments later the impeccably dressed passengers in the ship’s ballroom had recovered their composure and continued dancing.
We are like those passengers. We are still dancing. And the ship of the ecosystem and of our industrial economy is still afloat. We don’t yet see the huge gash below the waterline where the sea is pouring into the engine room. But don’t kid yourself. The damage is irreparable, if still largely below the waterline and out of view.