A study of 10,000 children and young people (aged 16 –
25) in ten countries about their thoughts and feelings related to climate
change was published in December 2021.1 The results of the survey
was consistent across all countries, with 59% of respondents being very or
extremely worried about climate change. A further 25% were moderately worried.
Respondents reported feelings of being sad, anxious,
angry, powerless, helpless, and/or guilty. High levels of anxiety and distress
were correlated with perceptions of government inaction and betrayal.
Reading this research, and reflecting upon my
conversations with people around existential collapse, I was reminded of the
work of Francis Weller (The Wild Edge of Sorrow.) Weller notes that when
we do not allow for, and honour “the needs of the soul during times of
grief” then “sorrow mutates into symptoms of depression, anxiety,
dullness, and despair.”2
A year ago (August 2021) I posted a series of four
blogpieces exploring Existential Grief and Mourning. In response to the
above observations I now offer these four blogpieces in their complete form
below. Hence, this weeks blog is substantially longer than my normal weekly
blog. However, it may be of use having it all in one place.
Considering the results of the survey of 10,000
children and young people, it is worth restating an observation from Existential
Grief and Mourning. “We must find the courage to begin conversations about
Existential Collapse – even if we do not know how or where to begin.”
1. Caroline Hickman, Elizabeth Marks, Panu Pihkala, Susan
Clayton, R Eric Lewandowski, Elouise E Mayall, Britt Wray, Catriona Mellor,
Lise van Susteren, Climate anxiety in children and young people and their
beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey, The
Lancet, Vol 5, December 2021.
2. Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of
Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley,
Existential Grief And Mourning
This blogpiece seeks to understand our collective and
individual response to social and environmental collapse.
The first warning bells sounded fifty years ago with
the release of Limits To Growth.1 That ground-breaking study
looked at several possible future scenarios based on projections of population,
resource use, pollution, food per capita, and industrial output. One of these
scenarios the authors termed the Standard model. Since 1972 this has
come to be re-phrased as Business As Usual. Recent research and studies
have shown that those warning bells rang true.2
We are at the limits to growth. In fact, we are beyond
the limits and are now in collapse.
Many reading this may think that I am speaking of
collapse as resulting from climate change. I am…but so much more as well. To
borrow a term from the climate change lexicon – we are facing a perfect storm.
This perfect, super, storm is comprised of: climate
change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, soil depletion, pollution, water
degradation, food scarcity, diminishing fuel reserves. Added to these are the
more socially constructed harms of: political polarisation, mass refugee and
migration movements, an ever-increasing chasm between rich and poor,
techno-addiction, and loss of trust in so-called world leaders. All these, and
more, are coming together simultaneously, to create unavoidable collapse.
Whether we know it or not, like it or not, this existential
crisis gives rise to grief and mourning.
Five Stages of Grief
In 1969 the Swiss-American psychologist Elisabeth
Kubler-Ross postulated five stages of the grief process. Her theories and ideas
have little changed in the intervening five decades. Her five stages of grief
is a useful model with which to dissect our collective response to existential
loss. This blog will look briefly at each stage: Denial, Anger, Bargaining,
Depression, and Acceptance. Following this, this question will be
posed: what does it mean to mourn when faced with the possibility of
For decades, denial was the default
position on climate change for most of the world’s leaders, captains of
industry, politicians, and other decision-makers. Within the general
population, denial of climate change was also widespread, although this has
changed somewhat during the course of this century, with denial less evident
within the general population.
More recently, even some of the most recalcitrant of
the world’s leaders have shifted and now, at least, acknowledge the reality of
However, the planetary system has shifted immensely in
far less time than it took these leaders to change their minds. It has gone
from Global Warming to Climate Change, to Climate Chaos, to Climate and
Environmental-Social Collapse within just a few short years.
Collapse, however, goes much deeper than Climate
Change – it is a death. A death of our way of life, perhaps even the death of
our very existence on this planet. Such a thought is extremely uncomfortable –
so much so that a common response is denial. Indeed, denial is reasonable and
totally understandable. Denial protects us from those uncomfortable thoughts
and feelings. At least, it does so until such time as we are capable of moving
There is a danger in lingering too long in denial
When someone is faced with the death of a loved one, a
person in denial wonders how they can go on, perhaps even questioning why they
should go on.
Faced with existential death however, our collective
denial shifts our response from one of ‘how do I go on’ to a stubborn
‘we will go on.’ Denying the possibility of the extinction of humanity we,
collectively, say: it’s business as usual, we won’t change, we’ll keep on
keeping on. And so, we continue to extract minerals from the earth, we will
continue to exploit nature for our own ends, we will continue to pollute the
land, sea, and air with our waste. Denial says we must keep fuelling the
industrial-consumerist machine in whatever way possible.
Denial, ultimately, stops us from seeing the error and
foolishness of our ways.
We cannot afford to linger in denial, for the longer
we remain in denial, the closer collapse comes, and the harder the fall is
likely to be.
Anger is an on-the-top emotion. When we
experience it, we know it – and usually, so do those around us. Anger is driven
by, and protective of, the ego. Anger declares: I am threatened, or I
have been harmed. Our ego wants to protect us from real and/or perceived threats.
So, our ego looks for, and usually finds, an external source of the threat or
Anger is also a cover-up emotion. It covers up
deeper emotions. Beneath anger we often find other emotional states: betrayal,
physical harm, abuse, and abandonment, are some possibilities. These hidden
emotions vary from person to person, and from culture to culture. Anger, and our
ego, is determined to shield us from these deeper emotions. With respect to
Existential Collapse, beneath the anger may be the pain of a deep sense of
impending loss. Loss is always difficult, and painful. Existential Collapse is
the ultimate loss, and extremely painful. No wonder we want to shield ourselves
Once a source of threat or pain is identified, the ego
now has something, or someone, to blame. Presently, various movements around
the world find it easy to identify culprits: business leaders, trans-national
companies, world leaders, the media, politicians. Once identified, it is easy
to uncover further evidence for this analysis. Confirmation bias kicks in and
we can find many articles with titles such as “Biggest 10 carbon emitters”
almost every day.
Anger is a useful early response to Existential
Collapse – it protects us. However, remaining within this stage is unhelpful,
because we remain externally focussed. We can find more and more evidence that
we are right, that someone or something else is to blame, and hence deserving
of our anger.
When that happens, anger has become a blindfold,
preventing us from seeing the bigger picture.
The other stage that many activists (and others) are
caught in is that of bargaining. Bargaining allows us to hold onto hope,
even though we are experiencing pain. Bargaining asks: If I (we) do this
then can things get back to normal?
Bargaining in a time of Existential Collapse says: If
we do this, and that, then collapse will not happen. Bargaining is a
hopeful stage, it paints a rosy picture of the future, one in which everything
will be okay.
Because this stage is hopeful of the future, it is often
a solutions-generating stage. However, solutions posited in this stage
tend to be of a reactive and grasping nature. Solutions offered from this stage
often react to a simplistic analysis and grasp at quick (often technological)
fixes. Such solutions arise from a mechanistic way of thinking.
The mechanistic, Cartesian, ways of thinking have been
with us in the western world for some 400 years or so. Einstein, however,
challenged this by telling us that:
“We cannot solve problems using the same
thinking we used when we created them.”
Einstein was not simply suggesting thinking
differently about problems, he was suggesting a completely different way
Because we continue to think and generate solutions
within a mechanistic mindset, the solutions generated in this bargaining
stage, more often than not, also tend to exacerbate the very problem we are
wanting to solve.
Bargaining keeps us locked into an historical trap. A
trap that keeps us thinking we can be certain of being able to fix things. A
trap within which we continue to believe we can be in control of the
anthropocentric project of progress. This is techno-addiction.
The bargaining stage is useful to us, it means we can,
at least, look forward to a possible future. However, as with anger, if we
linger here too long, we do so at our peril.
Plus, we fail to see the underlying cause of the
strife we are in and the damage we continue to inflict upon the earth.
We live in a world where we want to fix things. If its
broke – fix it! If it ain’t broke – still, fix it! You could say we are fixated
on fixing things. The same is true of depression. Depression must be fixed.
But, in a time of grief, depression is a natural
response to loss. Indeed, when facing Existential Collapse – the ultimate loss
– depression may be a vital part of the grieving process; a “must-see” stop off
point on the grieving journey.
Yet, there is much fear around depression, sadness,
and despair. This fear leads to a reluctance to talk about Existential
Collapse. “Don’t talk about it. Don’t go there – you’ll only get depressed.”
Sounds like denial, doesn’t it? Depression – a
necessary stage in the grief process – is to be denied.
The reluctance to recognise the possibility of
depression takes on an even greater significance in a time of Existential
Collapse. The ramifications of collapse will seriously impact younger
generations and those yet to be born. Older generations (if we/they understand at
all) may be reluctant to engage with younger people because we/they wish to
protect children and grandchildren from such thinking.
Yet, not talking about collapse hides a truth. An
enormous truth! An unwillingness to enter into conversations around collapse is
tantamount to lying. Such conversations may be difficult, they may be painful,
they may even be depressive. But, have them we must – for this collapse has
already begun, and will become worse – much worse.
Furthermore, younger generations cannot be protected
and must not be lied to. Indeed, younger generations most likely know more
about Existential Collapse than do older generations.
Notwithstanding the possibility of depression, we must
find the courage to begin conversations about Existential Collapse – even if we
do not know how or where to begin.
Let us not allow our fear of depression to hinder us
from facing our fear of Existential Collapse.
Accepting Existential Collapse may seem to be a
strange (even counter-intuitive) notion. How does one accept the possible
extinction of the human race? Surely, that is an untenable idea. However, let
me be clear: Acceptance is not synonymous with “being okay with.” Nor is
acceptance a resigned, non-involved, withdrawal.
Tara Brach coined the term Radical Acceptance
which is possibly a better term than the single word – Acceptance. She
has said that Radical Acceptance is “…an inner process of accepting our actual,
present-moment experience. It means feeling sorrow and pain without resisting…
(It is) clearly recognizing what is happening inside us, and regarding what we
see with an open, kind and loving heart.”4
an analogy may help to distinguish between this form of acceptance, and a
you are a member of a sports team (e.g., rugby, netball, Aussie rules,
gridiron, basketball, league …) and the full-time whistle is about to blow
within the next couple of minutes. Your team is trailing by thirty points or
more – your team is going to lose. Do you, and the rest of your team-mates,
give up, stop playing, walk dejectedly off the field? No! You keep playing,
right up until the whistle, even though you know you are going to lose. Furthermore,
you keep playing as part of the team. You don’t take on the burden of loss all
to yourself. Nor do you hog the ball – you pass, you support your team-mates.
in a time of Existential Collapse also understands that past actions are no
longer relevant. Past behaviours and ideas cannot be returned to. They are
understanding leads many in the Acceptance stage to conclude that the very
basis of western-styled techno-industrial civilisation is at the core of the
collapse. Business-As-Usual is not an option.
Acceptance understands the big picture, it also realises that there are no
solutions. Existential Collapse is not a problem to be solved or fixed. It is a
predicament which has an outcome, but does not have solutions. See the
excellent blogsite (Problems, Predicaments, and Technology).
This would seem to suggest that the emotional response would be depression. It is not. True Acceptance, in fact, opens one up to a new appreciation of beauty, love, joy, and contentment.
Having now delved into the five stages of Grief, with
especial reference to Existential Collapse, these concluding paragraphs
consider the emotional response of Mourning.
Existential Collapse is incomprehensible. Existential
Collapse is unheard of. We have never been here before. We have no blueprints.
We have no roadmap with which to navigate our way.
However, if we get over denial, and then manage our
way through the three stages of grief (anger, depression, bargaining) then we
may arrive at Acceptance.
In that state of Acceptance we can truly Mourn.
(Before moving on, let me make an important
distinction. Mourning is not depression. Mourning is not melancholia. Mourning
is not sadness, nor is it sorrow.)
Mourning is like the soft woollen cloak that wraps
around us and holds in the warmth of a deep love.
the etymology of mourning is illuminating. It has Old Germanic and Old
Nordic roots; roots that also give us words like memory, commemorate, and
remember. So, when we mourn, we remember something.
Thus, we could define mourning as “remembering
our love for someone, or something, that has been lost, or is about to be
It is this love, and the memory of love, that sets mourning
apart from melancholia and depression. You could say that mourning is a
remembering of joy, beauty, love, and connection.
Mourning, in the context of Existential Collapse, is
remembering the beauty of nature. It is remembering our connection with the
enormity and totality of life. It is remembering our place. It is remembering
that we are all derived from, and owe our very existence to, Mother Earth.
Mourning and Acceptance are two aspects of the same
understanding. Both recognise that whatever we do to the Earth, we do to
ourselves. When we treat the Earth with disdain, we lose our connection and
When we treat the Earth as part of us, we can remember
beauty, joy, and love.
We are losing that Earth. Or, at least, we are losing
our part of that Earth. And for that, we can mourn, we can remember.
1. 1. Meadows,
Meadows, Randers & Behrens III, The Limits to Growth (Report for the
Club of Rome), Universe Books, New York, 1972.
2. 2. For
(accessed 28 July 2021)
blog further explores Einstein’s famous dictum about thinking.
4. 4. www.tarabrach.com (accessed 10 August