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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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Again, I’m not saying that there is nothing to be done. On the contrary, we do everything that we possibly can. We rage, we weep, we demonstrate, we grow our own food, we sign petitions to save the whales-- the whole nine yards. 

But we also realize that the problem is not a superficial one. Moreover, the time for half measures has long since come and gone. We need to face the fact that our lives are going to have to change, we are going to need to find a new way to live on the planet, because, whether we like it or not, powerful mechanisms beyond our prediction or control are about to wreak havoc on our familiar world.


This realization is the entry into the fourth stage of grief-- depression. We clearly recognize that some form of tragedy has now become inevitable. Indeed, it is already happening. We allow this understanding to penetrate not just our minds, but also our hearts. We feel the pain of the earth as our own.

Does this sound fatalistic? I would argue that it is just being realistic. We are no longer fooling ourselves by saying that we don’t have a problem, or that the problem can be easily solved by some quick technological fix, new law or regulatory sleight of hand. We have acknowledged that a kind of death is taking place, and must now run its course. 

Embracing the sorrow of this death is essential. Up until this point, our hearts have been armored against the truth of what is happening. We have been so busy denying it, or trying to fix it, or to somehow moderate its impact that we have not actually allowed the immensity of what is actually taking place to actually sink in. 

But there comes a point when the reality does sink in, not just intellectually, but emotionally. This happens in different ways for each of us. I’ll never forget flying over the Amazon and looking down at the endless checkerboard of soybean fields and isolated blocks of jungle which a few years ago was unbroken forest as tears welled to my eyes. The earth’s last great rainforest is being sliced and diced to produce cheap hamburger meat for the fast food industry. 

I don’t have any children, but if I did I would grieve for the fact that they will grow up in a world largely bereft of tropical rainforests, glaciers and icecaps, polar bears and gorillas and coral reefs. 

Environmental causes are often presented as if they were strictly practical issues. Climate change and the ongoing pillage of the planet is bad because it will interfere with agricultural production, deprive the world of “natural resources,” create disastrous mega-storms and disrupt the smooth functioning of our economy. These impacts are real, of course. Yet they often blind us to the more intimate personal dimension of the story. 

Destroying the world is bad not just because it will hurt the bottom line. It is bad because we are the world . This is what E.O. Wilson was getting at when he introduced the idea of biophilia, which refers to the instinctive bond which humans feel with other life forms. We are hard-wired to love the earth and our fellow inhabitants on the planet-- not solely because it is in our self-interest to do so, but far more profoundly because we never were separate and apart from them, even though our predatory economic system has compelled us to act as if we were.

I know that this may sound a bit sentimental. We have been conditioned to believe that “irrational elements” like emotion should not interfere with pragmatic political and economic decision-making. Even environmentalists nowadays are constrained to make their arguments in dry utilitarian terms without reference to the grief that they-- and we-- are feeling at the impending loss of so much of the natural world.

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