In the five stages of grief over climate catastrophe, might we be further along the path than we think?


Over the past year we have drawn attention to a number of papers on climate catastrophe that promise to deeply affect the way we think about our future. Two that come immediately to mind are Jem Bendell’s call to ‘Deep Adaptation’ and Jeremy Lent’s challenging response in his paper ‘What Will You Say To Your Grandchildren’.

A new paper by eco-psychologist Zhiwa Woodbury entitled Climate Catharsis: A psycho-spiritual, socio-cultural model of anthropocentric transmutation offers a third perspective – the inevitability of a spiritual awakening that enables transformative action. He begins robustly:

While Hitler created gas chambers, we are gassing the entire biosphere. Not out of evil intent, but instead as an exercise in the banality of evil. It can safely be asserted that, for vast majority of human beings, people driving their children to soccer matches or sitting down to a steak dinner, “they know not what they do” (Luke, 23:34)…

In the paper Planetary Hospice: Rebirthing the Earth (2014), I attempted to apply Kübler-Ross’ classic model for the stages of grieving at a collective, psycho-spiritual scale to American’s response to the climate crisis. This was very much intended as a preliminary assessment at that time, and never really sat right with me.

After giving it a lot more thought, I came to believe that I had missed the mark by a rather wide margin. After taking it all into a more holistic, contemplative realm, what seems to have emerged quite suddenly and almost of its own force is a new model of climate catharsis.

This model may prove useful to mental health  professionals and climate activists alike. Furthermore, and quite apart from any conscious intention on my part, it seems to actually provide the reasoned cause for hope alluded to. 

Because once I fleshed this model out at spiritual, psychological, social, and cultural levels, it slowly became apparent that we are much further along in the collective grieving process than I had surmised in Planetary Hospice.

While there are many in this movement who are concluding that near term human extinction is somehow inevitable, a serious consideration of this model may give even them pause to reconsider the hastiness of their (unfortunate) conclusions…

This involves a consideration of the societal mental health profile, in relation to the stages of grief attendant to the growing realization that life as we have known it, during the Holocene Age, is now ending. The explicit assumption here is that at a base level of awareness - that level at which we are all connected to our planetary life support system - we intuitively ‘know’ what is transpiring.

However, because evolution has not really prepared us to deal with such an existential threat at this grand a scale - since we have only very recently reached and exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity, and gained the kind of mastery over it that started to become apparent after WWII - there is a natural, reflexive tendency to suppress this awareness before it emerges into consciousness, and to continually repress it thereafter.

The grieving process varies from individual to individual, and the stages of grief do not necessarily unfold in a linear fashion. But it does seem that when the grieving process is considered at the societal level there is a kind of collective zeitgeist  (spirit of the time) that characterizes a majority of the people - with significant outliers on both ends - as we move through these suppressed stages, in a more-or-less linear direction…

For illustrative purposes, and at the risk of over-simplifying, we could state as our hypothesis that Americans as a cultural collective are in the middle of this grieving process - the third stage, bargaining.

This would perhaps be evinced by pervasive attempts to avoid the inevitable with various unrealistic strategies. But it would not mean that many Americans were not still regressed at the stages of denial or anger, or that many more had not progressed from bargaining to depression, nor would it infer that there were not already many outliers who had progressed to the level of acceptance

It is this natural phenomenon that then gets reflected in shadow forms by the trends in mental health. Those least equipped to deal with the emerging awareness are the most likely to dissociate and/or act out in harmful or unproductive ways, reflecting our collective societal neuroses and psychoses.

Thus, mental health trends become reliable markers for where we are in our collective grieving process. These mental coping mechanisms are also reflected in popular cultural  trends, though not all mental health trends are treated as problems by mainstream psychology. This last  point is significant.

One mental health trend that Planetary Hospice completely overlooked, effectively skewing the conclusions, was the incredible scale of greed and promotion of self interest that was first celebrated during the Reagan revolution, and then ran rampant during the Clinton/Bush era.

Any sane society would certainly have viewed this kind of behavior as symptomatic of severe neurosis, if not actual sociopathy. But in modern American culture, narcissistic personality disorder not only flies largely under the radar. It is actually rewarded with advancement in the corporate, political, and entertainment spheres. ….

In the present context, we can actually take heart  and find hope in our current state of affairs. Do not be distracted by all the dysfunction we are witnessing right now, or even by all the disruption and dislocation that is to come. Instead, look at where we are in the grieving process. 

As Prigogene’s theory of dissipative structures holds, these kinds of systems need to reach their highest tolerable degree of chaotic disorder before a quantum leap to a new and unprecedented level of order can transpire. Or, as the aphorism says, it is always darkest before the dawn. 

In Planetary Hospice, I fretted over what it would take, and how long it might take, to get America from stage 2, anger, to the final stage of grief - acceptance. But according to this new, more sound model, and with everything discussed up to this point - including the intuitively congruent cultural markers - it now appears that we are actually already on the verge of acceptance. This is good news!

All of the stages of grief are obviously still in play here. As the situation degrades over the coming decades—as it must, given the inconvenient 40-year lag time between carbon emissions and climatic uptake—we might even anticipate spiraling through these stages repeatedly.

But perhaps the most pertinent question we should be asking ourselves right now is whether we might not actually be emerging from this dysfunctional cultural paradigm of suppression and repression, and entering into the one stage of grieving that is not really susceptible to repression. If this could be the case, then what are the clearest indications of that societal emergence, and how might we best advance it?

To some extent, that could be the entire rationale for the Daily Alternative! Once again, the whole paper is recommended and can be found here.