The Five Stages of Environmental Grief
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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.
I’m not just talking about climate change. Global warming is arguably only the most glaring symptom of our systematic destruction of the life-support system that sustains us. The critical global-lung called the rain forests are also vanishing at an astonishing rate. Over half have disappeared since 1990, and the rate of commercial cutting is accelerating every year. The oceans are heating up, being poisoned and acidified and overfished. An estimated 40 percent of arable land that is currently being farmed has been seriously degraded by toxic agrochemicals, erosion and encroaching desertification.
Clean water sources are vanishing even as global population soars and demand for water doubles every twenty years. The planet has entered an age of unprecedented habitat loss and the mass extinction of species. Affordable and easily accessible reserves of fossil fuels are soon to run out, compelling the Big Energy companies to go after ever dirtier and hard to get to sources like the Alberta tar sands, and the recently discovered oil formations lying thousands of feet below the Arctic Ocean.
Not only does the exploitation of these unconventional reserves often use up nearly as much energy as it produces, but the environmental risks are huge. The current boom in “fracking” of oil shale, for example, may permanently poison the underground aquifers which we depend upon for our drinking water. And potential future oil spills, like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf, may render ocean ecosystems in the Arctic or elsewhere into dead zones.
These environmental perils have not arisen in a vacuum. They are the predictable outcome of a corporate-acracy ransacking the earth for its private profit; a virtually unregulated banking and financial system which is careening toward the brick wall constructed by its own insatiable greed; a political structure which has been sold lock, stock and barrel to the highest bidders.
Add all of these together and you have... the Titanic.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the ship is sinking and there is nothing to be done. Yes, the ship is sinking, and there is lots that we must do. There are lifeboats to be mustered, distress calls to be made. And everyone, and I mean everyone needs to take a crash course in how to survive in the North Atlantic in a rowboat. Because that is where we are headed-- or the lucky ones are headed at any rate.
This is not to say, as certain religious zealots do, that the end is nigh. God is about to scrap the earth as we know it and start all over again from scratch!
No, the planet will undoubtedly survive. That is what planets do. Who knows, humanity may survive too in some radically revised, and quite possibly diminished form. Only time will tell. But what is surely a goner is human industrial civilization in its current form-- that is to say, the world of cheap and abundant carbon energy, the world of limitless economic growth, soaring human populations, and perpetually rising standards of living, the world of unbridled consumerism.
That world is a dead man walking. But the curious thing is that almost nobody seems to notice this. The holds are filling with water, the ship is listing at a crazy angle. Yet the dance goes on!
Look at the initial response to climate change. For the most part, we have ignored it. This is unfortunate, but it is also predictable. When a person is diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness, their initial impulse will be to say. “I feel fine... This can’t possibly be happening to me.”
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.
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.
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.
When our story changes, our values change, we begin to live more lightly on the earth. When we live more lightly, the earth commences its slow recovery. I’m not sure how we get to this new story. But recognizing that the old story has not worked is the necessary first step. That is going to happen-- whether through heartbreak or catastrophe, or more gently through a collective awakening of the human spirit awaits to be seen.