Feeling Unbearable Grief for Gaia

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Since I began this weblog three years ago, I’ve been trying to come to grips personally, and explain to others, the enormous feelings of sorrow, helplessness and anxiety that pervade most of my waking hours. As Einstein would have predicted, the more I’ve studied and learned about the state of our world, the more pessimistic I have become, and the more these disquieting, haunting feelings have grown.

Last year, after reading philosopher John Gray’s extraordinary Straw Dogs, I felt for awhile as if the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. Gray explained that, yes, human overpopulation, overconsumption and emotional detachment from Gaia, the Earth-organism that comprises and connects all life on our planet, were destroying life at a rate not seen since the last Extinction Event 65 million years ago, but we humans are programmed to be who we are and do what we do, and no individual or collective human action can possibly hope to change that or forestall this extinction. He wrote:

The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction… Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs — even if the result is ruin. When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings. These are not flaws that can be remedied. Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mould. The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational.

If we want to give full expression to our environmental sensibility, he said, we should be honest and admit that:

The humanist sense of a gulf between ourselves and other animals is an aberration. Feeble as it is today, the feeling of sharing a common destiny with other living things is embedded in the human psyche. Those who struggle to conserve what is left of the natural environment are moved by the love of living things, biophilia, the frail bond of feeling that ties humankind to the Earth…It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter.

Gray is not arguing for nihilism, or for revolution, but for acceptance. He has caused me to accept that we are responsible, collectively, for the dreadful destruction we have caused and are causing to this planet and the life on it, but we are not guilty (since we do what we are genetically designed to do, and can do nothing else) and should not feel guilty for not dedicating our lives to preventing the inevitable.

This has been difficult for many of my readers to understand: What we must do, if we really care for this planet, is put guilt and anger and shame behind us and work to make the world better for those we live with and love, and those who will inherit our doomed planet when we die. And we must also give ourselves time and space to become more truly human personally, to reconnect as much as we can with Gaia and with our instincts, and relearn what our species forgot when it chose to become separate from the rest of life on Earth. This is not futile or grim or burdensome work — it is the responsibility of those who understand where we are and where we are going, it is the only thing we can do that makes sense, and it can be a joyous responsibility, and one of rediscovery of who we are and what is really important.

As difficult as this has been to explain to others, I was alarmed to discover that, only a few months after reading Gray, some of the feelings of anxiety and sorrow returned, and I have been unable to shake them. There is clearly something else weighing on me, something that Gray did not address. I am, alas, a slow learner and not very perceptive, so until yesterday I was unable to grasp what this “something else” was. And then, in reading the remarkable Dave Smith‘s To Be Of Use website as part of some current research I am doing, I stumbled across six words at the very bottom of some of his web pages: in an age of unbearable grief.

That was the ‘something else’ that was weighing on me! It was the same feeling that overwhelmed me last year when we lost our beloved Chelsea, but subtler, less intense, but more relentless. It was the reason I could not bear to read the environmental news every day, one step forward, ten steps back, a story of hopeless and relentless decline, rearguard action, loss and death.

And then I clicked on the link for Dave’s six words and was blown away to discover this brief, articulate and powerful essay from the 2001 LA Times by environmentalist, voluntary simplicity consultant and For the Future think tank founder Richard Bruce Anderson:

At the heart of the modern age is a core of grief.

At some level, weíre aware that something terrible is happening, that we humans are laying waste to our natural inheritance. A great sorrow arises as we witness the changes in the atmosphere, the waste of resources and the consequent pollution, the ongoing deforestation and destruction of fisheries, the rapidly spreading deserts and the mass extinction of species.

All these changes signal a turning point in human history, and the outlook is not particularly bright. The anger, irritability, frustration and intolerance that increasingly pervade our common life are symptoms associated with grief. The pervasive sense of helplessness and numbness that surrounds us, and the frantic search for meaning and questioning of religion and philosophy of life, are likewise often seen among those who must deal with overwhelming sorrow.

Grief is a natural reaction to calamity, and the stages of grief are visible in our reaction to the rapid decline of the natural world. There are a number of steps that people go through in the grief process. The first stage is often denial: ìThis canít really be happening,î a feeling common among millions of Americans. Eighty percent of American adults say they are concerned about the environment, and there is some awareness of the gravity of our situation, yet a widespread awareness has yet to be felt in practical terms. We know the facts, but weíre ignoring them in the interests of emotional survival.

The second stage of grief is often anger. We go into the ìIíll fight itî mode. Many environmental thinkers and activists put a lot of grief energy into constructive work. That energy is a factor in the undeniable successes of environmentalism, yet it is a sign of suffering and is probably a constraint on the intellectual vitality of the movement.

The third stage in the grief process is often despair. We feel that ìno matter what I do, itís still happening.î Because the planetary future seems so grim, itís likely that many Americans have despaired, turning away from the quest for a meaningful solution.

The final stage of the grieving process, for those who can achieve it, often brings a more hopeful state of acceptance, even serenity. When we emerge from the bottom of despair, we may find the inner strength for a peaceful accommodation to reality. We can continue to take positive actions, but we are no longer in denial, rage or despair.

Even if we face the consequences of our assault on the natural environment, we may still find that the problems are too big, that thereís not much we can do. Yet those of us who feel this sorrow cannot forever deny it without suffering inexplicable disturbances in our own lives. Itís necessary to face our fear and our pain and to go through the process of grieving because the alternative is a sorrow deeper still: the loss of meaning. To live authentically in this time, we must allow ourselves to feel the magnitude of our human predicament.

Last night I walked about in a daze, astonished that I had, for most of my life, been ‘stuck’ in the third, ‘despair’ stage of unbearable grief for Gaia, and had, despite all my studying and thinking about the environment and How to Save the World, and even the revelations from John Gray, been unaware that this grief was the cause of the relentless anxiety and sorrow that have oppressed my life since the heady environmental optimism of the 1960s gave way to the grim realism that succeeded it, and which has been reinforced since then by an interminable ocean of terrible knowledge.

I cannot help but think, having read and talked with so many others who care about our planet and its thin, fragile biosphere, that I am far from alone in this suspended state of unbearable grief for Gaia. Now, at last, thanks to Dave and Richard, I know that I must get past this and move on, at last, to the fourth, ‘acceptance’ stage. I’m not sure how to move on after forty years stuck in the same place, but at least now I knowwhere I am, and why, and where I’m trying to get to.

I hope Richard’s essay is as valuable to others as it has been, already, to me.

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20 Responses to Feeling Unbearable Grief for Gaia

  1. Have you considered the possibility that your thoughts and feelings of grief may in fact be creative and not merely perceptive?

  2. Herbinator says:

    We all have equal power as reflected in our vote. THEY may drive the world into oblivion but they didn’t do it with MY vote.

  3. patrick says:

    Dave, I feel like i’ve come across this idea a couple times on your blog and want to understand where it’s coming from. the idea that we humans uniquely seem ‘fated to wreck the balance of life on earth’ (to quote gray). i feel like i’ve read a lot of the same books as you but have yet to come across anything that says this was also so. quinn would see it as only a civilizational story since civilization has never been succesful (and because of the great forgetting, we assume that this is human nature) but that many tribal societies have been succesful for thousands and thousands of years. i’d have to assume you understand the taker way of assuming that what we do is ‘human nature’ so i really don’t understand where these comments about us not being able to live succesfully in balance with nature. it just doesn’t seem plausible to me that as an animal that evolved alongside the rest of life on this planet, that we are utterly incapable of co-existing. i’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

  4. medaille says:

    A while ago I stumbled onto this site:http://www.inannareturns.com/It was pretty much my first introduction to hinduism, and although I’m still not very complete in my knowledge or interpretation of hinduism, I did derive a lot of comfort from that site, or through trying to learn about it, sufism (sp?), other mysticism, buddhism, etc. That site feels that we are coming to an end of an age, where the world needs to be reset and that it is all part of God’s (if you can call it that) plan to have us living lives of anxiety, fear, and spiritual blindness. I’m not really sure what to believe, but one thing really seems to resonate with me. We live in this reality for a reason, and that reason is spiritual development. I find it impossible to believe that the world is here just randomly. If it is, who cares, we’re going to rot into dirt and that’s that, might as well live with purpose. I think it’s important to realize that the creator of this reality created this for our benefit regardless of our actions and our outcomes. Each action, good or evil, teaches us how to live in a more godlike manner using either pleasure or pain as our motivation through karma or something similar. The end result of our journey is always the same –> we rejoin god. We can be delayed or suffer in the short term, but the end result is that we rejoin god, regardless of how many incarnations it takes. It seems to me that what Richard is saying is “remove the attachment that you have towards the results of your actions.” Have faith that God wouldn’t give you the power to permanently screw things up, because he has your best interests at heart. Reach inside and figure out what you were meant to do, and do that dutifully knowing that you are acting out your part and fulfilling god or the gaia’s plan. In most case’s, I think it’s safe to saythat most people aren’t doing what they want or were meant to do if they are working 40 hours a week in “just a job.” That’s completely ass-backwards because they are preventing themselves from having the time and energy to fulfill what their true calling is. When you centralize power, you allow more power and influence to those who shouldn’t have it (because who in their right mind needs other people’s power in addition to what god already gave them?), thus you spend more time and energy fulfilling their calling for them rather then fulfilling your own. It’s no wonder things get screwy when you destroy diversity by centralizing the governing thought of the world, just look to Illich’s works on the two watershed’s of industrialization to see what and why that occurs.I think that points out what job really needs to be focused on a lot right now. Right now, what’s needed are liberators. People need to be liberated from all the chains that society has on them so that they can be allowed to develop themselves into what god/gaia wanted them to be. They need to be allowed to learn the lessons of the world faster so that they can become better people (more godlike). They cannot do this being tethered to a very shallow existance. They cannot do this if they don’t have the time to explore the world and notice inconsistencies which shatter their worldview and allow them a newer broader worldview in its place. They need to be liberated from having to work just to survive, so that they will have time to better fulfill their role.That’s what I would tell everyone. Work on breaking down barriers of ignorance of your model of the world. Never assume that you are right and they are wrong, but instead try to work together to discover the truth about what resonates in your heart. Chances are if you listen to yourself well enough, you’ll find that what your heart tells you is not to different from what most others hearts tell them. Do what’s need to liberate people from being wage-slaves. Strengthen local food production. Strengthen local energy production and conservation. Broaden people’s horizons. Show them that being a selfish capitalist to consume (the ideal person in our society) is not the only model and give them an alternative role model to follow. I hope that helps. That was all pretty stream-of-conscious, so feel free to comment about what seems on or off about it.

  5. etbnc says:

    Sounds like you’ve gained a key insight, Dave. I look forward to updates as you integrate this insight into your worldview. I do see this concept of acceptance as part of a larger process of integration. And as you suggest, the wonderful thing about integrating thiskind of knowledge into our outlook is that it enables us to concentrate our future efforts on the things that matter. Moreover,it enables us to be most effective at doing those things that matter. Such wisdom enables us to focus on what works best to achieve what matters most.Thanks for sharing this valuable insight with your audience, Dave.

  6. theresa says:

    Now this is such an interesting story. I never understood the anger toward people that is shown by environmentalists and animal rights activists in particular. I commented in a post once about Barry Lopez who said somewhere that the wilderness is an antidote for modern alienation but he might just as well have said grief. I never mentioned another book, called Tales From Planet Earth by Arthur C Clarke which I first read maybe 25 years ago. Many of the stories were written in the 50s and set in the future, some 5000 year ahead. I won’t go into it but Clarke’s vision of the future and the enourmous strength of the earth to heal itself and still nurture just had the most calming effect. It was likely just a personal experience of reading at the right time and place and probably wouldn’t happen for anyone else but it saved me ever being angry at people or feeling any despair. Just thought I would mention that, the main story in it was called The Road To The Sea. Clarke really is/was one of the greatest visionaries of the 20th century. Nice reading here today too Dave, thanks.

  7. Julia says:

    Dave, i can really feel what your feeling. I don´t know if i am still in the first phase or if i am stupid, but i think we must have hope.And now i remember Fritjof Capra book “The hidden connections”. Have you read? It is a great book about “how to save the world” and in the final pages he gives a beautiful message about hope. Things can change, we can change, we are not “suicidal”, if we see what has to be done we will do it. People, in general, are good.Anyway i cannot thank you enough for the great (free) reading in your blog.

  8. Hi, Dave. I remember a very similar discussion on September 20th 2005, “It’s far too late and things are far too bad for pessimism”. I remember saying you were bargaining and feeling kind of stupid about it. :-)Maybe reading that post again with new eyes will give you a different feeling?

  9. Thank you very much for sharing.

  10. Marty Avery says:

    As Human Beings we ARE ruled by preferences

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    William Anderson sent me this comment by e-mail, which I wanted to share:My wife and I recently spent part of a day at a despair and empowerment workshop (based on Joanna Macy work – http://www.joannamacy.net), and I realized just how worried I am about personally running out of hope. I’m still processing that. But somehow I think that the model of moving from despair to acceptance is a bit too simple. I think that the acceptance needs to include the despair. There are sadnesses in my life that remain with me even as I’vemoved on. They don’t bind me, but they are a part of me nonetheless.

  12. Pearl says:

    Fascinating to hear what you have uncovered. I think you’re right in that one cannot have acceptance to erase the grief. It is an intrinsic part of the process but acceptance tempers the limits.

  13. Jon Husband says:

    And then there’s the incredible lyrics to leonard Cohen’s song / poem .. “Everybody Knows”Everybody knows the boat is leaking,Everybody knows the captain liedetc.Not to mention The Future, or In My Secret Life, or Democracy Is Coming .. To The USA

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    I appreciate the comments, suggestions and encouragement, everyone. Patrick, I think if you read more of my environmental posts you’ll find the answer to your question. There are two points here that keep coming up that I wanted to address: First, I really like the thought that reaching ‘acceptance’ is not ‘getting over’ or ‘getting past’ or even ‘learning to cope with’ grief. The grief is something that becomes part of us, that we carry with us always. The issue in acceptance is reaching the point at which it no longer prevents you from making the most of your life, stops inhibiting you and desensitizing you and eating you. The second point is about spirituality. I know a lot of people think I am spiritual, and recommend spirituality as a means for coping with grief (and other setbacks and inhibitors). My response to several writers who have asked me about my spirituality is as follows:”I don’t think I am at all spiritual. Philosophically, like Emerson and Abram, I am a phenomenologist,which is pretty down-to-Earth . Merleau-Ponty expresses that philosophy’s principal thesis as follows: ‘Synaesthetic [involving all the senses together] perception is the rule [among all life on Earth], and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the centre of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist sees it, what we are to see, hear and feel.’I am far more concerned with the ‘real’ world and perception than with moral issues. The law and the truth have become ‘demeaned’ political concepts. Abuse of them allows the rich and powerful, people who are (must be) disconnected from all life on Earth, unable to sense or perceive, who live in a fictional world of their own construction, to manipulate others to think like them. That isn’t hard when most of us are now also disconnected from all life on Earth. The anchor that allows some of us to resist that is not, in my opinion, moral or rational so much as instinctive, connected to the knowing in our bones and in our DNA and in our collective presence of what is really important in this life, which is, today, to ‘work around’ and ‘outlive’ (i.e. live better than) these shallow people for whom law and truth has no meaning, and to once again just ‘be’ part of the whole of life on Earth. I know some people see that as spiritual, but I don’t, I see it merely as perceptive, ‘synaesthetic’, ‘realistic’ in the original sense of that term.”Hope that’s understandable, and perhaps even of some use.

  15. zach says:

    Thats not how emotion works, its not a part of us and we don’t have to carry it with us if we don’t want to. So the choice is to carry it with us or face emotions probably caused by that which is inconceivable. Once facing and experiencing the emotions the emotions can be let go. For some it may be hate or anger towards others (“I love people”) the hate can only be let go upon admitting we don’t love people. Or perhaps one hates themselves, this creates despair but facing self hatred is far worse, so avoiding the problem ensues and neither is solved. Basically one ends up crying over things that may be embarrasing or humiliating or whatever (“I won’t give them the satisfaction”). So bitterness is also caught up in this. Where is your bitterness directed?

  16. zach says:

    oops, I meant “Basically one has to end up crying over things that may be…”

  17. Dave Pollard says:

    Zach, we have a completely different worldview on this, and are unlikely to ever be to appreciate or understand each other’s POV. I think psychology has a distorted, fictional, simplistic, ‘humanistic’ view of human nature, conceptually internally consistent but disconnected from reality and hence not only useless but dangerous. I cannot hope to explain to you that I feel no bitterness or hatred or embarrassment, only an intuitive, sensed, perceptual (not conceptual) grief.

  18. zach says:

    The psychology view ultimately relates back to parenting. Parents instill children with self esteem or they don’t, growth proceeds from there. If one avoids the pain and seeks other forms of self affirmation without experiencing ones pain and total honesty and vulnerability I think healing is difficult. And people are simple. Six primary emotions, common world wide and unmistakable. But who needs evidence eh. However, it is not a psyc point of view I was relating about experiencing emotion and letting it go but a buddhist one, that is what they say and in my experience I have found it to be very true. More seriously, the only vexing comment I regret leaving was saying I don’t understand your POV because I believe I do.

  19. Dave Pollard says:

    Collen writes:I’m quite glad to have found this site. My own struggle has for a long time seemingly been against myself, but learning that there are others who are “disenfranchised” or otherwise “on the edge” has further helped me to see, what I suppose, is hope. I have cringed at what I’ve seen, and despised life within to the point of wishing myself away. Grief for the world, for the destruction of the only aspects of our world that bring solace, and for myself have been burdensome company for years while utterly stranded in a life so unlivable. Now, I can be glad I have been so low; it has made me who I am, someone who enjoys simplicity and sees beauty freely. And for the first time sees choices, and that this other way of being is not only OK, but sublime. This recognition is my incipient freedom, more of which is slowly being granted to me as I disentangle myself from what is rancid and dying. Seeking a different way of life, and the relief of knowing others too sense the wrongness, and seek to change it, is salvation– what will at very least save myself, if not a small part of the world. More people need to know they can be free too.– All this to say, really– thank you for your writing. Colleenwww.pathosofdistance.blogspot.com

  20. Lisa says:

    Great post! Very thought provoking. I guess I have reached a certain level of acceptance and serenity… accepting that things will get much worse and that we are causing the 6th mass extinction. I am still sad about it though, and I remain hopeful that many of us will be able to ease the suffering of the earth – in some amount of space and time. My hope lies in making that space and time as large as possible so that many different kinds of animals and plants will survive long into the future, for their own sakes and for the enjoyment of those humans who walk the earth after I am gone. Eventually, the it will all be destroyed by the sunanyway. Nothing lasts forever.I do not agree that it is in our nature to destroy ourselves and I agree with Patrick, that civilization is to blame for this behaviour rather than our DNA.Great blog – I only just found it and it appears I have A LOT to read!! L.

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