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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A Future Without Us
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Complexity and Collapse
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If We Had a Better Story...
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Our Unique Capacity for Hatred
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CoVid-19: Go for Zero
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No Use to the World Broken
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Nothing to Say About This
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Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
How Our Bodies Sense the World
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We Have No Choice
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