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The Five Stages of Environmental Grief

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.

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Denial is the first of what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross called “the five stages of grief.” Fully a third of Americans don’t accept the clear scientific evidence that climate change is happening. And for most of the rest of us it falls low on the list of political priorities-- well below fixing the deficit, preserving our entitlement programs and rebooting the sagging economy. 

It is like the early stages of a cancer. The doctor has made the diagnosis, but the symptoms are still relatively mild and manageable. Moreover, the news is so shocking and unexpected that we literally cannot take it in. The Titanic is too big to sink, right? And even if it is sinking, the scientists will come up with some magical new technology which will keep the ship afloat awhile longer. 

Sure, we have read about global warming in the press, but it remains an abstraction... Then gradually, we begin to notice warmer summers, unseasonal droughts, more severe wildfires, unprecedented bouts of extreme weather. This has already happened for millions of Americans this summer, the driest and hottest season as long as records have been kept for the US. It happened for millions on the Eastern Seaboard who suffered the brunt of Super-storm Sandy. It happened for farmers in the Midwest who suffered the worst drought in decades last summer.


Once these sorts of things start to happen, the second of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages, the stage of anger commences. Actually, the more prescient amongst us have already entered this anger stage. We see clearly what is happening and are enraged at the corporations which have despoiled the earth to boost their own quarterly earnings. We are enraged at the profiteers on Wall Street, the corrupt politicos, the henpecked regulators-- all the assorted bad actors who have colluded in the destruction of our environment. 

This anger may to a certain extent be justified, even therapeutic. But the bottom line is that it does not serve us, or more to the point it does not serve our imperiled planet. To be angry at a cancer won’t make it go away. 

And in the end, anger also prevents us from taking personal responsibility for what is taking place. Anger says that there is a “them” out there who is doing something terrible to an “us.” And that is just not true. Sure there are those who have taken advantage of the situation to feather their own nests. But the bottom line is that we are all to blame . That is to say, virtually everyone alive on the planet today is implicated in the industrial system which is despoiling the earth. We are its beneficiaries, its minions, its 7 billion plus worker ants. 

Or as Pogo famously remarked, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


So there begins a third stage which Kubler-Ross called “bargaining.” The bargainer acknowledges that something terrible is happening, and he or she tries to do something about it. We start recycling, we buy organic food, we chose a fuel-efficient vehicle, put solar panels on our rooves.

If you want to see someone who incarnates the bargaining stage of environmental grief, look at Barack Obama. The president clearly knows that there is a problem. And he is making some good faith efforts to correct it, offering tax credits and federal loans to green energy companies, regulating power plants and tightening emissions standards on cars. 

But eventually Obama-- and the rest of us-- will discover that  a little bargaining with global warming and environmental degradation is simply not going to do the trick. In fact, it will gradually dawn that nothing is going to do the trick at this stage. 

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