The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

On Death and Defiance

Posted by | October 4, 2014

Which side are you on?Figure 1: A chart of the scientific consensus on climate change (97% of scientists agree that humans are driving global warming), and how much attention the minority opinion seems to receive in the media. Or is it a graph of the amount of America's wealth controlled by the top 3% (54.5%), vs. the bottom 97%?

 

The following was published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition, 10/5/2014.

Two weeks ago, my family and I were perched on the steps of the grand fountain in Columbus Circle, Manhattan, watching 300,000 people march past. They sang, they shouted, and they carried thousands of messages, all communicating one thing: world leaders, it’s time to do something about climate change. A week of action followed. Further protests spread around the world, corporations declared carbon reduction goals, and even presidents and prime ministers frankly spoke of “addressing the need to revise a framework for negotiation.”

That’s some progress, anyway.

Meanwhile, the levels of carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor, those proven greenhouse gases, continued to rise in the atmosphere. Because of their greenhouse effect, each passing month is hotter than its 20th century global average. This streak has been unbroken for 354 months (29.5 years). Though this summer may have felt like fall in the eastern U.S., it’s a fact that we are still living through the warmest years in recorded history. Our world has a fever; parts of it may even be terminally ill.

A digression: In 1969, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published her seminal work “On Death and Dying.” In it, she described five stages one can go through when faced with terminal illness or tragedy. Abbreviated DABDA, the stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Kubler-Ross’s framework has held up well. We all, whether we want to or not, seem to pass through at least a few of them when faced with our own impending demise, or the passing of a loved one.

The earth itself cannot feel loss, longing, regret, or rage. But those living on it can, and the 300,000 participants in the NY People’s Climate March on September 21 certainly do. Confronted with a seemingly dying world, they’re going through the grief cycle, and they’re not alone. According to Gallup, half of America is concerned about climate change.

But that means half isn’t. This country is similarly split along political lines: roughly speaking, we’re equal parts liberal and conservative. It doesn’t take too much web searching or cable news watching to see how the factions line up, especially in an election season. By and large, liberals are fretting over the environment’s rapid decline, and conservatives aren’t.

But perhaps conservatives are concerned over another system’s terminal illness. Is part of our society dealing with the possibility that capitalism may not be as robust and healthy a system as it was once deemed?

Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, a leading light for the Left, just released a new polemic five years in the making. Her book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate” is a thorough review of climate science and its dire predictions. In it, Klein makes a case for who is to blame: namely, the developed world, whose embrace of “extractive capitalism” is spoiling the future for all the world’s children. Klein contends that, in the relay race of civilization, the baton each generation passes to the next is getting smaller. Whether it’s a diverse, livable environment or an economy that functions for all participants: each may be withering or even, potentially, dying. Which brings us back to Kubler-Ross.

Denial: Conservatives, by definition, do not like change and have also, in this country, evolved a fierce skepticism about the role of government. To accept the science of climate change and many of the necessarily government-led solutions (e.g., a carbon tax, more regulation, infrastructure investment), conservatives would have to go against their grain. And is everyone on the Right still sure that capitalism is working as well as it should, or is there some denial there too? Liberals, by definition, are open to change and willing to discard traditional values. Consequently, one doesn’t find as much (or perhaps enough) climate skepticism in their camp by this point. They’ve shifted stages to...

Anger: Those marchers in New York were nonviolent, but many were still angry. Frustration at inaction is another stage for those who accept the science. But on the other end of the spectrum, one could view the Tea Party as an angry response to the surprising fragility of the almighty dollar. In the Great Recession, the global economy suffered a convulsion the likes of which hadn’t been seen in 80 years. Had it been building up, or were there mini-strokes that presaged it? Like weather-related disasters, are financial events becoming more frequent and more expensive? If the economy turned out to be as tenuous as our ecology, that would make some people very angry, once they stopped denying it.

Bargaining: We may be at this stage now, environmentally. Climate negotiations are regaining steam, talk of carbon taxes and corporate measures is increasing. Even the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page, which formerly banished any talk of environmental collapse, is now positing that technological innovations could stave it off. If Louis Pasteur’s vaccinations liberated us from contagion, Enrico Fermi’s nuclear reactor promised carbon-free energy, Norman Borlaug’s dwarf wheat averted famine, then we can probably figure our way out of this climate mess we’re in.

Depression: But by the time we do, it still may be too late for many. The inconvenient and depressing truth of climate change is that, as with the ebola outbreak, those who suffer first and most will be the world’s impoverished, most of whom did not have a hand in causing climate change. Poor island nations will be submerged, droughts will force mass migrations in agrarian countries, and storms will ravage the developing world far more than the resilient Industrial North. Scientists believe that, given the rapid rise of our emissions over the past century, many climate disruptions are already “baked in” to the next century. There’s no known way to get all that excess CO2 back into the ground, and that’s depressing.

Acceptance: But depression doesn’t lead to action. If even some of the consequences of a warmer world come to pass, like sea level rise, more droughts and flood, and wider spreading diseases and pests, adapting to their new reality means accepting it and moving on with life. This will not be easy; it never is. On the economic side, enduring the stages of grief over capitalism’s potentially flaws – such as great inequality, borrowing from the future, and exhausting natural resources – may eventually bring about a corrected system that more sustainably works for all its players.

Climate change, I recently heard Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann say, is “a problem perfect for thwarting American action, because it combines the need to 1) go on a diet, and 2) plan for retirement. Historically, Americans have been horrible at both.” But many of us have – grudgingly, ultimately, resignedly – dieted and saved, and dealt with far worse too. We have averted or at least coped with tragedies before.

In fact, the best copers in Kubler-Ross’s work, and in Naomi Klein’s, are those who, throughout the grief cycle, maintain hope. Not just for themselves, for the slim chance that they’ll survive the disease or calamity. They also hold out hope for those who come after.

Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His Sunday column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and future, liberal and conservative. More at wellsreserve.org/twoworlds.

 

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BONUS: Here are two more takes on Kubler-Ross and climate change

1) "The five stages of climate change acceptance" by Prof. Andrew T. Guzman, 2/16/2013

2) "The five stages of climate grief" by Prof. Steve Running, 11/27/2007

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