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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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Yet it is precisely this divorce of thought from feeling which has been at the root of the problem all along. Living in this schizoid manner has freed the human race to exploit nature and treat it like an insentient object without autonomy and sovereign rights. And we can’t even begin to heal our relationship with the earth until we acknowledge that our love for it is real, and indeed must now guide our actions, as it has guided indigenous cultures in the past. 

Make no mistake, recovering the full measure of our innate biophillia will be a wrenching process. We will be forced to recognize the enormity of the suffering that we humans have inflicted on the earth and its living systems. But embracing this pain, actually feeling the anguish of the earth and its inhabitants is arguably the only thing that might help save us at this stage. 

Ok, the word “save” is not quite accurate. There will be no salvation in the sense of a magical solution. In fact, there may be no “solution” in the usual sense at all. We are beyond that. The illness won’t be cured, yet healing is possible. 

Healing means moving beyond the old paradigm of exploitation to a whole new manner of living on the earth. Healing is not always saving the patient. It is letting what needs to die-- in our way of life, and also, sadly, in the world of nature-- die in order that something new can be born in its place. 

And don’t kid yourself, this will be neither quick nor easy. “Some things can’t be redeemed in a hurry,” writes William Stafford in his poem What To Do When You Get Lost . “You learn the rules after the game is over,” he adds wistfully. 


This is the meaning of Kubler Ross’ fifth and final stage of grief, the stage of acceptance. Acceptance is finally learning Stafford’s “rules” after the game is over. That the game is over in this case means that we are no longer fighting against the truth of what is taking place, we are not wasting our energy in guilt or anger, we are not just trying superficially to fix things, we have moved beyond both hope and despair to a clear-eyed vision of reality. 

In terms of the environment, acceptance means that we have stopped fooling ourselves about how deep the pathology runs or how radical the solution is. We recognize that what is at fault here is not merely a particular corporation’s greed, or the policy of this or that administration or political party. 

Again, we do what we can do. Clearly fossil fuels need to be replaced by renewable energy systems. Agriculture has to return to low impact sustainable methods. We need a moratorium on the cutting of old growth forests, strict bans on overfishing, protection of endangered habitats. 

But in the end we won’t be rescued by new technologies, laws, or even more sustainable ways of living. If we succeed in weathering the coming storm, it will be because something subtler, yet even more powerful has been transformed within us. We could call that subtler thing “consciousness,” although that would make it sound intellectual; we could call it “the soul,” which would make it sound spiritual and otherworldly. We’ve already used the word “heart,” but what we are talking about has little to do with raw emotion or sentimentality.

Maybe a better way to express it would be to call this thing that needs to change “our story.” We need to come up with a different story about who we are, and what the earth is, and how we are inextricably connected to it. We can no longer afford to tell ourselves that we humans are here to dominate nature, to wrest the maximum possible economic gain from the earth’s living body. We need a whole different measure of success than accumulating money and the latest high-tech baubles. Most pointedly of all, we need a new understanding of happiness and how it is to be achieved.

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