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Have you grieved the death of our planet yet?
I thought I had.
You see, earlier this year I accepted a “mindful challenge” and committed to using only commuter coffee mugs when buying coffee—no more disposable paper cups. Admittedly, my success bred smugness and self-righteousness, as if this singular behavior of mine somehow made me more dedicated to “saving” the planet than others.
But it wasn’t until I read the National Climate Assessment report that I finally accepted the death of our planet. It threw a much-needed reality punch right to my gut.
I was only focusing on primary change, which is basically the act of switching out paper for metal. What I lacked was the secondary change—the deeper, more fundamental shift or change in beliefs and values, which helps sustain the behavior. Basically, I was too focused on eco-friendly behavior and protecting myself from feeling the grief over losing our planet.
We go into a state of shock and denial when death, or the risk of it, comes into our periphery. I would say that for most of us, we have been in a pathological state of denial about our environmental crisis. This is not about denying the scientific merits of our planet’s demise; I wholeheartedly believe that we humans have created this mess and have been doing so since the middle of the 20th century. No, I am referring more to those of us who believe all the climate and environmental research that support global warming and continue to remain in a state of shock and denial—those of us who are constantly wondering, “Can this can actually be happening?”
The reality is far too grave for our vulnerable bodies and minds to fully accept.
Author J. William Worden has outlined three “tasks of grief” to help us move through the shock, denial, and negative emotions associated with the potential loss of our planet and to respond in a beneficial way to all living species and Earth.
Task 1: Accepting the reality of the loss.
There are two types of humans who remain in shock: those who consistently deny the climate reports and those who do not. But the reasoning behind their “stuck-ness” is the same—fear.
Our fear is inaccessible when left unprocessed, and that can be debilitating. It causes us to continue to consume, waste, and focus on financial and material gain, because the reckoning of the loss of all we have accumulated or wish to accumulate threatens our sense of self, our ego, and our illusion of control or safety. Let me pause here—I am also an accumulator, a consumer, and have on many, many occasions foregone eco-friendly behaviors for convenience, swiftness, and cheapness. I am no better than anyone, nor claim to have all, if any, answers.
We all need to move beyond the shock and not get mired down in fear.
The term eco-anxiety, coined by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, is defined as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”—something I experienced after reading the climate report. And it’s something I continue to experience every time I throw away paper or plastic, idle, leave lights on or water running too long, keep my bedroom window open with the heat on, feed my teen boys too much meat and dairy, claim to be vegan myself while polishing off the remaining mac ‘n cheese, or deliberate over buying a new “want.”
It’s no way to live, I know. But there must be an alternative, right?
Yes, there is.
Rigidity and perfectionism fester when we seek only to change our behavior. To remain connected to ourselves, to others, and to our planet, we must remind ourselves that shifting fundamental belief systems about how we live is a process we enter into with compassion. We need to remain mindful and compassionate when we engage in eco-unfriendly behavior, knowing that we will continue to work toward actions and behaviors that support sustainability.
Task 2: Process the pain of grief.
It is hard to access painful emotions associated with global warming because for many of us it has not impacted our daily lives. We may feel disconnected from our “ecological self”—as coined by Arne Naess—the self beyond the tissue.
We rarely step out of our homes or offices and into nature. Yet, we all feel a sense of sublime connection to nature when we are surrounded by it, only to upend this connection upon returning to our metropolitan lives with our daily wasteful habits. We fall short of realizing that nature is always around us; we are nature. We are 70 percent of the same fluid chemistry found in oceans.
We can move beyond the shock and denial and numbness of climate change by reflecting on our own disconnection from nature, our planet, and our authentic selves.
Consider these questions:
What do you love about being alive on planet Earth?
What was a magical place for you as a child?
Where do you feel most at peace?
In 2019, we need to fall back in love with our planet, with our home. We need to remember from where we came. We can also turn our awareness toward the stories of communities around us that have been directly impacted by climate change, like the Inuit tribes, the survivors of Hurricane Katrina and the Paradise fires, and the continued devastating Syrian conflict and mass migration exacerbated by the 2007-2010 droughts.
Collectively, we need to move beyond the numbness and start feeling the pain of this potential loss for all of us.
We need to feel in order to act.
Task 3: Adjusting to our world of climate change.
Biological depression is the inability to adapt to our changing environment, and so we remain stuck, experience feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, and tend to hibernate or isolate. In order to evolve through this changing environmental climate, we all need to develop new skills, starting with resiliency. I’ve found this list to be immensely helpful.
Joanna Macy, an environmental activist and Buddhist, refers to the psychological theory of “positive disintegration” as a way for us humans to individually and collectively respond to our damaged planet by turning toward this tragedy, which requires parts of our previous human behaviors to be “swept away like leaves in a breeze.” What remains is our greatest potential for human growth and planetary repair.
We can start by asking ourselves:
What are my unique gifts?
Where am I most resilient?
Where can I actively apply my gifts on a daily basis?
The evolution of our species is not some alien life-form so often depicted in sci-fi books and movies; the evolution of our species is right here and now—in how we choose to respond to our own destructive behaviors toward our planet.
So, how can we consistently re-engage with our planet, with ourselves, and with those who deny climate change? And can we do it in a way that enriches our daily lives with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning? How do we consistently re-engage with our work, with ourselves, and with others when we fall short or get discouraged?
Borrowing from Macy, our despair for our planet is a natural and healthy feeling, and not to be minimized, as it stems from compassion—all the more reason to allow ourselves to feel the despair. It is rooted in our interconnectedness with the endangered animals, the scorched forests, the Inuit people, and the homeless person on the corner. We need to start needing one another more, without shame, and embracing our connections.
Macy also encourages us to engage in a daily practice of “active hope,” which involves three key steps:
1. Take a clear view of reality. Acknowledge the truth about climate change around us with open eyes.
2. Identify what we hope for, in what direction we’d like our planet to move, or the values we’d like to see expressed.
3. Take active steps to move ourselves or our situation in that direction.
“I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one,
but I give myself to it.
I circle around the universe, around the primordial tower.
I have been circling for thousands of years,
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?” ~ R.M. Rilke