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, California, 2015.
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 human extinction?
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 climate change.
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 on.
There is a danger in lingering too long in denial however.
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 pain.
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 from that.
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 of thinking.3
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
Perhaps an analogy may help to distinguish between this form of acceptance, and a resigned withdrawal.
Imagine 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.
That is Acceptance.
Acceptance 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 unsustainable.
This 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.
Although 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.
Tracing 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 lost.”
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 humanity.
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 example, https://www.livescience.com/collapse-human-society-limits-to-growth.html (accessed 28 July 2021)
3. 3.This blog further explores Einstein’s famous dictum about thinking.
4. 4. www.tarabrach.com (accessed 10 August 2021)