Over the past decade, a significant proportion of the world’s population has moved past denial that human activity is killing our planet, and that our current way of life is utterly unsustainable. But very few have moved past denial that our civilization is finished, most likely in this century, that there’s nothing we can do to prevent it, that the descent, as civilization crashes, will cause much damage and suffering, and that our human descendents will be much fewer in number and live radically simpler, relocalized lives. I call this the Second Denial.
Until we get past this second denial, most of those privileged and enlightened enough to have been able to move past the first denial will continue to waste everyone’s time and energy trying to “reinvent” civilization, prescribing utopian technological, innovative, behavioural or social fixes to prevent collapse.
Meanwhile, those who have not yet moved past the first denial will be doing everything in their power to sustain the industrial growth status quo. They include:
- The corporatists who “own” most of the land, resources and media, whose vast stolen wealth is fiercely and relentlessly devoted to generating even greater acceleration of industrialization, resource use, production, and control and propagandization of their “consumers”, no matter the cost, because as soon as growth stalls, they lose everything;
- The billions (mostly in struggling nations) who aspire to live the way the well-off in affluent nations live today, and who don’t understand why this is impossible; and
- The passive consumers of affluent nations who have been bred from birth to be fearful of change and who cling desperately, even violently, to the American Dream of universal prosperity and endless “progress”.
As our civilization begins to reel under the combined effects of the end of cheap energy, the end of stable climate, and the end of the industrial growth economy, this majority will resist every attempt to mitigate the damages our civilization is causing, in the desperate hope that they can get, or keep, a piece of the Dream. Those already struggling will do everything they can to stay alive as civilization crumbles, including razing what’s left of our forests, building nukes, burning coal, and exhausting the world’s fresh water. Complicit with them will be the passive consumers, who will give anything to protect their lifestyle — the only way they know to live — and the corporatists, dependent on never-ending bailouts and ever-increasing production, consumption and debt for their overly-leveraged, growth-addicted political and economic enterprises.
The informed progressives and idealists who have moved past the first denial will be no match (in numbers, power or desperation) for the billions who believe their survival depends on sustaining the unsustainable. Idealistic progressives’ actions to try to move to a more sustainable way for us all to live, to “reinvent” civilization, or to find some kind of utopian technological or social “solution” that will allow a gentle descent and a soft landing for civilization, will be overwhelmed by the horrific damages the majority will inflict on our planet in the desperate attempt to survive. The result will be more pollution, faster acceleration of atmospheric warming, rapid abandonment of environmental regulations and attempts at enforcement, and more (mostly local) resource wars.
Only when a significant proportion of our species moves past the Second Denial can we start working on mitigating and resilience actions that will actually help those facing the crises of civilization’s collapse. Only when we give up our “we can control this” mentality, and our magical thinking dreams and schemes — belief in and wasted effort on global consciousness raising, spontaneous voluntary massive change, technological cures, gentle transition programs, wishful incremental-change-is-enough (if we all do it) thinking, individual preparedness plans, social/economic reinvention and “innovating our way forward” projects — will we be able to face the stark reality of what our children and grandchildren are going to face because of our stupidity, and get to work on actions to mitigate its worst effects and develop the capacities we and they will need to cope with cascading crises as they unfold.
Since I made my own reluctant way past the second denial, I have found myself arguing more often with those who have worked past the first denial than those who have not. I have been accused of defeatism and “doomer” thinking and “unhelpful” negativity. “We want hopeful projects that make a difference now”, they tell me.
I don’t want to argue. Daniel Quinn said famously:
People will listen when they’re ready to listen and not before. Probably, once upon a time, you weren’t ready to listen to an idea than now seems to you obvious, even urgent. Let people come to it in their own time. Nagging or bullying will only alienate them. Don’t preach. Don’t waste time with people who want to argue. They’ll keep you immobilized forever. Look for people who are already open to something new.
While Quinn was undoubtedly speaking about people still at the First Denial stage, I’ve found his advice works just as well when dealing with people at the Second Denial stage.
But it’s pretty lonely here, too far ahead of myself for my own, or anyone else’s good. Granted, there are some others who’ve made it past the Second Denial: many of the Dark Mountain artists, some grief counsellors who recognize the symptoms of denial, three leading climate scientists I’ve met (a seriously depressed group), some post-civ writers and readers, and some fans of John Gray’s Straw Dogs.
While I’m waiting, I’m trying to understand why so many bright people are still stuck at the Second Denial stage. They really don’t want to hear any information that would push them past denial.
I’ve been looking at the famous (and controversial) five-stages-of-grief model, which is pictured on the chart above. Here’s why I think it’s so hard for people to make it through these stages, starting with the stages of grief related to the First Denial (that our current way of life is unsustainable):
- Denial: “I can’t believe this is happening”. We’ve always figured out how to overcome problems in the past; this won’t be any different. Look outside, it doesn’t look like anything is wrong. We’ve always been taught, and told, that times have never been better, progress is endless, and our civilization is the culmination of centuries of learning, adaptation and wisdom. And there are a bunch of scientists and other experts out there who say this is all speculation and fear-mongering; I believe them. If it were that serious, we’d know, we’d be acting, our leaders would be fixing it.
- Anger: “It’s not fair; who’s to blame?” I’ve raised my kids so they’ll have a chance to live better lives than mine, and no one told me this is now impossible. It’s the government’s fault. Someone should go to jail for this. Why didn’t someone do something about this earlier, so it wouldn’t have got to this point? Why is God testing us this way?
- Bargaining: “I would give anything for this not to be true now”. Let’s do what we have to do — deregulate coal mining and nuclear power development, so at least we put this off for a few generations. Maybe by then there’ll be some better answers that won’t require any real change in behaviour. I’ll drive a smaller car, recycle and turn off the lights, and if we require everyone to do that surely that will buy us some time? Let us pray for salvation.
- Depression: “What’s the point in doing anything then?” Might as well give up, since nothing that I do will make much of an impact anyway. How do I talk to my kids about this? Was it my fault for not knowing, our generation’s fault for not acting when we had time?
- Acceptance: “OK, it’s true and I can’t fight it, so what can I do now?” Lets see what will be needed to make the transition to a way of life that is sustainable. I’m willing to sacrifice more now, so that future generations will have a good quality of life. Let’s tell everyone about this, get global consciousness up to the point we’re all working to make it better. God will look after us anyway. And human ingenuity, when push comes to shove, can find ways to make life both sustainable and materially comfortable, so we don’t really have to change much. Let’s get on with it.
And now, the stages of grief related to the Second Denial (we can’t prevent collapse, and it’s going to be profound and difficult):
- Denial: “I can’t believe this is happening”. Civilizations don’t die. We’re living in the greatest time ever, a time when the human species has learned and invented more than ever before in history. We’ve put people on the moon, so surely we can solve this problem. I don’t want to hear this defeatist crap. If we all work together, there’s nothing that can’t be done. There are signs everywhere of global consciousness raising — we still have time to reinvent civilization to be sustainable, and even better than it is now. And the people I trust tell me not to worry — that this is just a temporary hiccup before we get back to healthy sustainable growth again. If it’s really that bad, why isn’t anyone talking about it, and why aren’t the signs of it obvious?
- Anger: “It’s not fair; who’s to blame?” Damn the corporatists, the lawyers, the greasy politicians and governments, the neo-cons, the people with large families, the people with large SUVs, the media, stupid fucking moronic people in general — they’ve conspired and been complicit in letting the world get to this impossible place. We were crying for action when we saw this crash coming and everyone else was just arguing over the seating arrangements. Humans are so greedy, so selfish, so thoughtless, so ignorant. When things get hard, I’m just going to look after myself and to hell with everyone else. My spiritual icon, why have you forsaken us, you’re supposed to look after us?
- Bargaining: “I would give anything for this not to be true now”. If civilization is doomed anyway, why not live it up, take everything we can get, ratchet everything up to get a few more years of good life. Turn off that bad news, I’m convinced already, we’re fucked, I don’t want to hear about it anymore. Tell me you still love me, that you know we all did our best, that we’re not to blame, that it’ll be OK at least for a while longer. Buy me a spaceship, find me an all-powerful saviour, transplant my consciousness into something that will survive the crash.
- Depression: “What’s the point in doing anything then?” It’s hopeless. Might as well blow it all up now and stop the suffering early. It’s only going to get worse. Our children and grandchildren are going to hate us forever for what we’ve done to them.
- Acceptance: “OK, it’s true and I can’t fight it, so what can I do now?” John Gray:
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. What could be more hopeless than placing the Earth in the charge of this exceptionally destructive species? It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter…
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…
We can dream of a world in which a greatly reduced human population lives in a partially restored paradise; in which farming has been abandoned and green deserts given back to the earth; where the remaining humans are settled in cities, emulating the noble idleness of hunter-gatherers, their needs met by new technologies that leave little mark on the Earth; where life is given over to curiosity, pleasure and play. There is nothing technically impossible about such a world…A High-tech Green utopia, in which a few humans live happily in balance with the rest of life, is scientifically feasible; but it is humanly unimaginable. If anything like this ever comes about, it will not be through the will of homo rapiens…
Political action has come to be a surrogate for salvation; but no political project can deliver humanity from its natural condition. However radical, political programmes are expedients — modest devices for coping with recurring evils. Hegel writes that humanity will be content only when it lives in a world of its own making. In contrast, [this book] Straw Dogs argues for a shift from human solipsism [belief in our aloneness and our disconnection from everything else]. Humans cannot save the world, but this is no reason for despair. It does not need saving. Happily, humans will never live in a world of their own making…
Homo rapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone Earth will recover. Long after the last traces of the human animal have disappeared, many of the species it is bent on destroying will still be around, along with others that have yet to spring up. The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.
[And in the meantime, he says, we should take joy in the astonishment of being alive, in idle pleasures and play, and in reflection, contemplation and living in the Now; we should be as responsible as we can in the context of our own communities, and take consolation from the value of our just actions even though their impact is small; and we should fill our lives with awareness, new experiences, love and learning, and just be.]
The stages-of-grief model is far from perfect, but it describes pretty well the roil of most of the people I know who are transitioning past either the First Denial or the Second. When you are coping with grief of the kind this terrible knowledge invokes, it is easy to get stuck, to backslide into earlier stages, even to experience all the stages at once.
I’m not an advocate of feeling grief just to progress past denial. My guess is that many people can’t handle it, and are probably better off living in denial, at least as long as possible. I’m just suggesting that when I got past the Second Denial I found it very painful, much more painful than what I felt when I moved past the First.
Denial is certainly understandable, especially when it relates to something as massive, impersonal, gradual, “invisible” and unimaginable as collapse of a civilization. Studies of past civilizations suggest their citizens believed they would last forever too. Talking about civilization’s collapse is even less socially acceptable than talking about climate change — the kind of subject that leaves people uncomfortable, depressed, feeling helpless, and anxious to “change the subject” (or the channel).
As long as there are 1000 articles talking about the importance of returning to economic growth, increasing profits and GDP, for every article advocating a zero-growth economy, it is those who have moved past the first denial who feel cognitive dissonance with what they know to be true, not the First Deniers. And when there are even fewer articles saying that even moving to a steady-state economy is a pipedream, and that what is needed is actions to dismantle the worst elements of the industrial growth economy now, it is no surprise that talk of the need for such actions causes the eyes of First Deniers to roll back in their heads, and brings exasperated cries of “doomer”, “unhelpful”, “defeatist” and “polarizing radical” from Second Deniers who feel caught in the middle. They are caught in the middle, just as those who’ve moved past Second Denial feel isolated and alone.
Richard Bruce Anderson describes the grief that accompanies the First and Second Denials:
At the heart of the modern age is a core of grief. At some level, we’re 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… 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…
Even if we face the consequences of our assault on the natural environment, we may still find that the problems are too big, that there’s 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. It’s 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.
I’m also suggesting that until I moved past the Second Denial I was one of those idealists who wasted a huge amount of time and energy (mine and others) on dreams and schemes to “save the world” — by means of innovation, technology, mass behaviour change, consciousness-raising and the other forms of salvationist magical thinking, the kind that the deniers of the inevitability of civilization’s collapse so love. And from my perspective the sooner we get past dreams of salvation, and move on to undoing, stopping and mitigating the worst current effects of industrial civilization (like the Alberta Tar Sands and factory farming) , the better.
We can stop some of the suffering, and the destruction to our planet, if we’re willing to take the (potentially enormous) risks that stopping it entails. Hoping and expecting that we (a) will invent our way out of it, or (b) can persuade billions of people to stop supporting it and thus disable it, is just wishful thinking, and it’s useless.
I don’t know if I’m prepared to take those risks. But my reticence is not due to denial that the Alberta Tar Sands and factory farming are atrocities creating massive destruction and suffering, or denial that stopping them wouldn’t be of enormous benefit to the world, or denial that there is no magical way to achieve the same end safely and gently. And these atrocities are, in microcosm, what is happening with our entire industrial civilization.
Perhaps when there are more of us…