The Great Grief

“We seldom realize it, but we are living in something very similar to the Garden of Eden referred to in the Bible. An environment we are perfectly adapted to. An environment which is both extremely rare and extremely precious in the endless vacuum and hard radiation of space. And an environment which, like the Biblical Garden of Eden, once forfeited, will never be returned to us again as it was.

Our world is filled with plants and animals born of three and a half billion years of evolution and woven into incomprehensibly beautiful and complex patterns of interdependency. The elephants, the glaciers, the rain forests and the reefs with their long beaches of white sand. The annual migrations and the nests built with such care, the new cubs at play in their first year, the green mountains covered with ancient and dark conifers and the frogs that sing life’s song of longing to us from the ponds of our springs and summers.

It is a palette of life, this world – our birthplace. It is filled with millions of overlaid evolutionary brush stokes. And, in this small place, safe from the pitiless and vast nothingness beyond our sky, a vibrant and magical complexity has been building and feeding into itself for eons – self-replicating – driven and warmed by the bounty of the sun’s glow and spilling forth ever more beautiful forms keen of eye and glorious of leaf – a small and fragile garden in a universe of desert.

Sit outside on a warm day with a soft breeze blowing and the leaves singing. Before you, a small child, or a puppy or a kitten playing in the grass feeling the joy of life welling new and ask yourself what it is all worth – this natural world of ours.

If you have the freedom and ease to be able to do these things and feel what I’m talking about, then you are still among the lucky ones in this world. Many, even as the sun blesses our thoughts, cry for water and for food. Cry from disease and cold, from fouled water and repressive governments and brutality. The world is becoming a narrow and hard place. A world of haves and have nots, of wealth and poverty, of lives of beautiful indulgences and of grinding misery.

Some would say there have always been rich and poor and there’s always been disease and misery. Yes, but in recent centuries, things were getting better. Despots were giving way to governments for their people, Health care and sanitation were reaching further each year into the lives of the marginalized. Education was more freely available. Mankind was on a steady ascension towards the light of a fair and equitable world.

But, all of this, the summer sun, the joy of nature’s bounty and the steady rise towards social enlightenment are all now sliding towards an unimaginable edge beyond which they will simply be memories of what once was and what once could have been.

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– I penned all of that back in August of 2006.  And things have been sliding slowly and inexorably towards the edge in our world ever since.

-Yesterday, I talked with a brilliant fellow here in Vancouver, B.C., for several hours about all of this.  

– He told me that he is more ‘hopeful’ than I am and I was curious what he meant.

– What he meant was, yes, there’s going to be a major reset of the natural world and millions will die and most species existent will perish.  But, that’s change and change always comes.  Humankind will survive, even if we are driven down into the stone-ages. And we will ascend again using the rubble from our last rise to fuel our need for materials.  Yes, the children of those future times will never know a world like ours but they will be born into their world and it will seem natural to them.

– That was his optimism and hope – only that we will survive.

– I understood and agreed with a lot of his logic.  

– But I cannot help but feel such a deep grief that it doesn’t need to be this way.  There’s is, really, only the fact that we have little capacity to see the havoc we are causing and less capacity to do anything about it that causes all of this.  

– There is nothing inevitable about about the changes we are unleashing on the biosphere because of our activities and that’s the source of my personal grief.

– A friend forwarded me the article, below, and it fits this moment in time so very well.

– dennis

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The Great Grief:
How to cope with losing our world

by Per Espen Stoknes

To cope with losing our world requires us to descend through the anger into mourning & sadness, not bypass them to jump onto the optimism bandwagon or escape into indifference.

Climate scientists overwhelmingly say that we will face unprecedented warming in the coming decades. Those same scientists, just like you or I, struggle with the emotions that are evoked by these facts and dire projections. My children—who are now 12 and 16—may live in a world warmer than at any time in the previous 3 million years, and may face challenges that we are only just beginning to contemplate, and in many ways may be deprived of the rich, diverse world we grew up in. How do we relate to – and live – with this sad knowledge?

Across different populations, psychological researchers have documented a long list of mental health consequences of climate change: trauma, shock, stress, anxiety, depression, complicated grief, strains on social relationships, substance abuse, sense of hopelessness, fatalism, resignation, loss of autonomy and sense of control, as well as a loss of personal and occupational identity.

This more-than-personal sadness is what I call the “Great Grief”—a feeling that rises in us as if from the Earth itself. Perhaps bears and dolphins, clear-cut forests, fouled rivers, and the acidifying, plastic-laden oceans bear grief inside them, too, just as we do. Every piece of climate news increasingly comes with a sense of dread: is it too late to turn around? The notion that our individual grief and emotional loss can actually be a reaction to the decline of our air, water, and ecology rarely appears in conversation or the media. It may crop up as fears about what kind of world our sons or daughters will face. But where do we bring it? Some bring it privately to a therapist. It is as if this topic is not supposed to be publicly discussed.

This Great Grief recently re-surfaced for me upon reading news about the corals on the brink of death due to warming oceans as well as overfishing of Patagonian toothfish in plastic laden oceans. Is this a surging wave of grief arriving from the deep seas, from the ruthlessness and sadness of the ongoing destruction? Or is it just a personal whim? As a psychologist I’ve learned not to scoff at such reactions, or movements in the soul, but to honor them.

A growing body of research has brought evidence from focus groups and interviews with people affected by droughts, floods, and coastal erosion. When elicited, participants express deep distress over losses that climate disruptions are bringing. It is also aggravated by what they perceive as inadequate and fragmented local, national and global responses. In a study by researcher  Susanne Moser on coastal communities, one typical participant reports: “And it really sets in, the reality of what we’re trying to hold back here. And it does seem almost futile, with all the government agencies that get in the way, the sheer cost of doing something like that – it seems hopeless. And that’s kind of depressing, because I love this area.” In another study by sociologist Kari Norgaard, one participant living by a river exclaims: “It’s like, you want to be a proud person and if you draw your identity from the river and when the river is degraded, that reflects on you.” Another informant experiencing extended drought explained to professor Glenn Albrecht’s team that even if “you’ve got a pool there – but you don’t really want to go outside, it’s really yucky outside, you don’t want to go out.”

A recent climate survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication had this startling statistic: “Most Americans (74%) say they only ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ discuss global warming with family and friends, a number that has grown substantially since 2008 (60%).” Emphasis mine.

These quotes and statistics underscore the reality that many prefer to avoid or not dwell in—this Mordor-esque land of eco-anxiety, anger, despair, and depression. One of denial’s essential life-enhancing functions is to keep us more comfortable by blotting out this inner, wintry darkness.

The climate survey, however, also has this encouraging finding: “Americans are nine times more likely to lean toward the view that it is people’s responsibility to care for the Earth and its resources (62%) than toward the belief that it is our right to use the Earth and its resources for our own benefit (7%).”

So, what if instead of continuing to avoid this hurt and grief and despair, or only blaming them—the corporations, politicians, agrobusinesses, loggers, or corrupt bureaucrats—for it, we could try to lean into, and accept such feelings. We could acknowledge them for what they are rather than dismissing them as wrong, as a personal weakness or somebody else’s fault. It seems, somehow, important to persist and get in touch with the despair itself, as it arises from the degradation of the natural world. As a culture we may uncover some truths hinted at by feelings we tend to discredit as depressive. These truths include that they accurately reflect the state of ecology in our world. More than half of all animals gone in the last forty years, according to the Living Planet Index. Most ecosystems are being degraded or used unsustainably, according to the Millennium Assessment Report. We’re living inside a mass extinction event, say many biologists, but without hardly consciously noticing.

In order to respond adequately, we may need to mourn these losses. Insufficient mourning keeps us numb or stuck in anger at them, which only feeds the cultural polarization. But for this to happen, the presence of supportive voices and models are needed. It is far harder to get acceptance of our difficulty and despair, and to mourn without someone else’s explicit affirmation and empathy.

Contact with the pain of the world, however, does not only bring grief but can also open the heart to reach out to all things still living. It holds the potential to break open the psychic numbing. Maybe there is also community to be found among like-hearted people, among those who also can admit they’ve been touched by this “Great Grief,” feeling the Earth’s sorrow, each in their own way. Not just individual mourning is needed, but a shared process that leads onwards to public re-engagement in cultural solutions. Working out our own answers as honestly as we can, as individuals and as communities, is rapidly becoming a requirement for psychological health.

To cope with losing our world requires us to descend through the anger into mourning and sadness, not speedily bypass them to jump onto the optimism bandwagon or escape into indifference. And with this deepening, an extended caring and gratitude may open us to what is still here, and finally, to acting accordingly.

? Per Espen Stoknes is a psychologist, economist & entrepreneur. He has cofounded clean-energy companies, and spearheads the BI Norwegian Business School’s executive program on green growth. The above excerpt was adapted from his latest book What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming (Chelsea Green 2015). Publ. here 15.5.2015

– research thanks to Kathy G.

– thanks for the conversation to Jim L.

– To the original article:

 

 

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