The 6 Stages of Climate Grief


I had an interesting conversation yesterday in which I was challenged over my distaste for Stewart Brand’s recent Aeon Magazine piece on rethinking extinction.  The post opens by stating, “The idea that we are edging up to a mass extinction is not just wrong – it’s a recipe for panic and paralysis.”  I have two problems with this statement.  First, Mr. Brand claims to know what the future holds.  Second, he seems to be claiming that the mere idea of a current mass extinction is too much for the public to bear.

I would respond by saying that we absolutely don’t know what the future holds.  We may be headed into the 6th mass extinction, and we may not.  Time (think in terms of hundreds or thousands of years) will tell. When someone claims to know what the future holds, I tend to have a severe revulsion to their certitude. Further, the idea that people would give up if they “knew” we were in the early stages of a mass extinction us even more troubling. I think this is poppycock and that it denigrates the intelligence and fortitude of the general public.

Sixth Mass Extinction Matrix

The matrix at right displays the options as I see them.  I’m wired for caution along the lines of the precautionary principle (How many habitable planets are you aware of?), so I’d rather land delicately in the lower right-hand corner by carefully discussing possibilities, then crash out in the upper left-hand corner by denying possible risks.

How else?

Rather than position this as Mr. Brand has, I prefer to look at things a bit differently, as I tend to think of this in terms of the five stages of grief developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.  Here’s a quick overview from Wikipedia:

The Kübler-Ross Model (The Five Stages of Grief)

1. Denial — One of the first reactions is Denial, wherein the survivor imagines a false, preferable reality.
2. Anger — When the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue, it becomes frustrated, especially at proximate individuals. Certain psychological responses of a person undergoing this phase would be: “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; ‘”Who is to blame?”; “Why would God let this happen?”.
3. Bargaining — The third stage involves the hope that the individual can avoid a cause of grief. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Other times, they will use anything valuable against another human agency to extend or prolong the life. People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek compromise.
4. Depression — “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die soon so what’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?”
During the fourth stage, the individual becomes saddened by the certainty of death. In this state, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time mournful and sullen.
5. Acceptance — “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.” In this last stage, individuals embrace mortality or inevitable future, or that of a loved one, or other tragic event. People dying may precede the survivors in this state, which typically comes with a calm, retrospective view for the individual, and a stable condition of emotions.

By telling us that we are not heading into a mass extinction, Mr. Brand may be allowing his readers to stay in denial, the first stage of grief.  I suggest that we educate our readers with the idea that this might be happening and then make arguments to support our positions.  Sound arguments and evidence may alleviate the concerns for some, but others might not be so inclined. As we do not know unequivocally, readers should decide for themselves where they think we stand, and then process that information appropriately.

Good science will advance our knowledge going forward, and we’ll have the opportunity to update our positions as that happens.  Alternately, we could withhold information from our readers for fear of frightening them into overwhelm, but that feels like paternalism which might also have enabling as a negative consequence.  I won’t have any part of that.

I do think it’s possible to maintain a frame of pessimism around where we are, and what we’re doing, while also believing that we’re capable of changing direction and fostering a bright future.  Things are kind of fucked up right now, but we are gaining an ever better understanding of the impacts we create and ways in which we might reduce or obviate them.  This is a complicated outlook, but I think it’s one that’s necessary if we’re going to stay engaged with the work that needs to be done.  As we eventually begin to turn the corner, we’ll have the opportunity to lighten up about our then present circumstances, but we’ve got some serious work to do to get there.

I have no desire to foment alarm, but I do want to help create awareness of what is known and what science suggests we’re putting at risk.  How can we expect people to make decisions which are presumably in their own self-interest if we withhold information which is crucial to that logical calculus?  (We can’t.)  So we need to discuss what we know, and what we can’t know.  And I think we need to couch this in terms which relay the seriousness of matters while also providing  hope.  The world won’t end tomorrow, but we should be honest about our impacts, while offering better paths forward.

The world won't end tomorrow, but we should be honest about our impacts, while offering better paths forward. Click To Tweet

What about the Sixth Stage of Climate Grief?

Whereas the Kübler-Ross model stops at learning to accept a loss (possibly a loved one passing on or the end of a relationship), the climate model is not (yet) dealing with such a terminus.  As such, there’s a chance to move beyond acceptance and actually do something in the engagement stage.  We need to work through the stages of grief so that we can get to the work at hand.

We need to work through the stages of grief so that we can get to the work at hand. Click To Tweet

Remember that this is not a linear process, and it’s not all-inclusive, nor will everyone necessarilly experience all of the stages.  As for me, writing this post has helped me pull my head back out of stage 2 (Anger) and back to the engagement phase where I want to direct my efforts.  I hope you’ll join me there.

By the way, if you’re interested in learning more, Elizabeth Kolbert just won a Pulitzer for Non-fiction for her book, “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.”  (I haven’t read it yet, but it’s high on my list since everything else that I’ve read of hers has been well worth the effort.)  Here’s an adaptation to get you started.Flickr/donkeyhotey

Happy Earth Day!


Update: I just ran across a similarly named ThinkProgress post from 2012. (It appears the author had the same idea that I had.)  They took a closer look at the stages, so it’s a completely different read. Check it out here.