When Jon Husband quoted these* words: “It’s far too late and things are far too bad for pessimism” at the recent conference we both attended, I immediately recognized it as the essence of my internal conflict over whether there is or is not hope for humanity.
In many ways we are like individuals who have just been told they have a year to live, and told that their quality of life will deteriorate slowly but steadily over that year. Upon receiving such news you can react in one of five ways:
How do these five ways of reacting to warnings about our own death map to the ways we can react to warnings about the looming and inevitable death of our entire culture? Supposing we are presented with many expert opinions that our civilization will end by the end of this century, that life will get increasingly difficult as the century progresses, and that only a few thousand humans will survive. We, as a culture, could respond in these same five ways.
What makes the analogy imperfect is that in the first case, the death is personal and imminent, while in the second case, it’s our offspring who will mainly suffer, and there is more time to procrastinate and to deny the inevitable. It might be interesting to consider the five stages that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross says most people who are told catastrophic news pass through:
Kubler-Ross does not assert that all people pass through all five stages, or that they pass through them only once, or that they pass through them in any particular order. And although psychologists might have you believe that Resignation is the desired ‘mature’ final state, I think that’s monstrously judgemental. I believe that for the majority of us we can’t pick and choose how we’re going to react emotionally to catastrophic news. We’re not in control of our emotions at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. There is no ‘better’ stage and no ‘end’ state.
I would argue that the five stages correspond to the five responses to news of our own personal imminent death, or the news of the death of civilization, our 30,000-year old culture. The Lomborgians, the Bush neocons, the evangelicals and the apologists for corporatism are locked into the Denial stage. You can’t argue with them — they can’t hear you. And since if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem, we are all, much of the time, in the Denial stage.
I think those in many parts of the world who engage in self-destructive behaviour are locked into the Anger stage. Those who are obsessed with and addicted to violence, from western militias to eastern suicide bombers, are unable to get past their anger, their belief that the misfortune that life has dealt them is not fair, and they are desperately looking for someone to blame. The fact that some wars between neighbouring countries and some civil religious wars go on for centuries, attests to the intensity and staying-power of this stage.
Here’s where I’m going to annoy some of my pragmatist readers. I think those self-proclaimed optimists, technophiles and believers that anything is possible are locked into the Bargaining stage. My argument here is easier to appreciate if you think of a marital break-up as the analogy rather than a personal death. The ‘bargaining’ after a break-up is often a “let’s try again, I’ll compromise, we can make this work” type behaviour that is often self-demeaning and horrific to observe. It’s similar to denial, except instead of denying the reality of what has happened, you’re denying that you can’t undo that reality, that you can’t go back. Environmentalists in this camp get understandably upset at ‘pessimists’ who say it is too late to go back or who insist that technology does not hold the answer.
Less controversially, I think the hopeless doom-and-gloom sayers are locked into the Depression stage. There is a strange solace in this state. It gives you an excuse to do nothing (because you believe nothing you can do will make any difference), and to some extent that is liberating, it frees you from responsibility (at least until you move to another stage).
And finally, I think that those who have accepted the inevitability of this civilization’s collapse and our inability to prevent it, and are thinking ahead to what might come after it, are at the Resignation stage. Some may be activists, giving up their personal security in the search for ways to mitigate the more serious consequences of the end of civilization and to prepare the survivors for building a new, and hopefully less destructive and more resilient society in its place. Others may be simply resigned to it, and at least resolve to do nothing to make the situation worse.
When I have lost loved ones I jumped back and forth among all five stages. I have not become better’ at handling such news, or the grief that follows it, and I don’t think I ever will. I suspect most people move through all these stages, back and forth, until the grief passes with time.
My internal conflict over the state of our world reflects, I think, a continued vacillation among these five stages of coping with the overwhelming evidence of the massive and unsustainable damage we have done to our planet, and the inevitability that our civilization, like every one before it, has peaked and is now in a long, slow decline.
When I do good work for some great companies, or work on projects with my neighbours, I am immersed in the realization of what a group of people collaborating together can do, and my awareness of what this century holds for us is shut out of my mind, temporarily denied.
When I read about what Bush and his cronies are doing to accelerate the demise of our civilization, I am angry. In more hopeful times, when I discover just how many people have moved, at least for awhile, out of the denial stage and are energized about making this world a better place, I shift into the bargaining state, an idealist who believes, at least for awhile, that anything is possible. And then comes more bad news, another disease or natural disaster or act of violence, always ineptly mishandled by those who have a frightening amount of power in our society and an equally frightening indifference to the responsibility that should come with power, and I am depressed. And sometimes, when a remarkable idea or an astonishing project or a group of people who are actually doing something comes to my attention, I am resigned, either passively or actively — willing to give up everything to work to save our world.
But then comes a stark realization of what is going to happen to this world, no matter what I do, and I’m back to anger or depression. And so on. You can read in this weblog how much my emotions are whipsawed by what I am learning every day. If you were looking for the Right Answer, the Higher State of Consciousness, you won’t find it, here or anywhere else.
So back to “It’s far too late and things are far too bad for pessimism”. It’s obviously meant ironically, but what is it saying? It means, I think, that it is not in our nature to give up. All five stages can be viewed either with optimism or with pessimism, but I think, by nature, we’re inclined to take the “Glass half full” view no matter which of the five stages we are in.
I probably spend an equal amount of time in each of the five states. So if I seem to vacillate in my opinions and moods on this blog, now you know why.
* the quote is variously ascribed to Barbara Marx Hubbard or Dee Hock
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A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
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