Climate Change from the Inside Out: Shock. Grief. Respond. Relief. Repeat – Vicki Robin
Civilization headed for collapse. Systemic problems are multiplying with breakneck speed now, and “climate change” has moved, faster than anticipated, from a heady discussion to a gut-wrenching existential issue, reverberating in our hearts. Our inner climates in response to the news and crises deserves attention as inner sea walls (trauma, social breakdown) will crash upon us too.
This post reflects my first efforts to date to metabolize rapid climate disruptions and to offer a framework for situation- and self-observation. In two months, I’ll be at the 25th US Climate Conference in Santiago, Chile with a quiver of questions to investigate while there.
Humans have been here before, I tell myself. The Black Plague picked off half of Europe. Hiroshima and Nagasaki began humanity’s flirtation with nuclear energy as weapons of war. The Doomsday Clock is still at 2 minutes to midnight, and now includes climate disruptions and the “fake news” erosion of democracy in the mix of existential threats.
But have we really been HERE before, where the whole planet, the basis of life itself, is threatened? This article by Catherine Ingram opens with a litany of the intersecting global stresses that will eventually decimate our species. If you need the recitation of climate ills to let the data penetrate, her recitation has both heart and integrity.
Maybe every civilization, as it comes down, assumes it’s the worst end of the world there’s ever been. But this collapse is ours to face and feel, whatever came before, whatever comes next.
The dam broke on my own assumption that climate chaos was still avoidable or at least decades away with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Despite how long and hard I’ve personally worked to illuminate a better, saner, simpler, smaller and more beautiful way of life, given the likelihood of overshoot and projected collapse, I was shocked. I never considered that we would lurch towards and stumble over the cliff, a point of no return, so soon.
When you hit something so hard that your system is rattled and something flies loose. Shock. What the body does to preserve the core when there’s a life-threatening injury. Shock. When something you never ever thought would happen happens.
I was shocked that I had focused so intently on solving the part of our predicament visible to me, that I missed the panoramic view of how far gone we are. This is the form of denial that says, “Yes, it’s bad, but we can fix it. Still.”
I was shocked that my theory of change had missed the mark by a mile. I was thinking in a linear way about a multi-variate complex 4- (at least) dimensional problem, applying Newtonian mechanics and good Western rational thinking to a tangled, interwoven, still terra-incognito living system. “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I can move the world” seemed like a good heroic motto. If I failed, I assumed I needed a longer lever or a different place to stand – not that I was 90% blind.
I was shocked that my identities were knocked off their moorings. I’d been touted as – and called myself -a social innovator. A scout. A cultural creative. A best-selling author. I’d almost made it to the finish line of life with a beautifully crafted story of my evolution and impact. While I’ve had a rich, varied, influential, adventuresome life and more than my fair share of recognition, climate chaos has swamped my personal story. The difference I’d tried to make was not equal to the mess we’ve collectively made.
I was shocked to find myself tumbling in the waves of shock along with everyone else, unable to find my own footing. If I’m a scout, then my job is climbing the mast or the lookout and help my people find their way. But I could not see how and where the multiplying threats would gather into a perfect storm of mission-critical system collapse. Even the best scientific minds, while accurately measuring the specific systems spiraling down, cannot say for sure how or when it crosses a threshold, a point of no return. Storms are bigger, in the wrong place at the wrong time – but do these mount in significance to indicators of destabilization or are they just freak storms? Glaciers are melting, but when does this tip the earth systems so far out of balance that civilizations cannot contain the damage? Climate chaos as the defining issue of our times has come to the fore just in the last year. Normally cautious, scientists have now broken the glass on the fire alarm and it’s screeching. Concurrently, new books have captured public imagination. David Wallace-Wells and Dahr Jamail have both documented the unremitting decline.
We’ve long had symptoms. We now have a name for the disease: climate disruptions. But what is the prognosis. The shock for me is that we’ve gone from a treatable condition to a fatal prognosis. That’s what has me reeling. I’m ping-ponging around the well-known stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance without resolution.
Used to being a leader, or at least a scout who is at least riding shotgun on the stage coach, I felt blind. And if blind, then unable to fulfill my self-assigned duties. People have looked to me. If I just shrug an I dunno, I’m useless – at least in my estimation.
The shell of my identities and coping mechanisms cracked. I was a china doll after all, not a Giant or the Lone Ranger. Shame at my failures, though, turned to relief that I no longer had to drag my successes, identities and roles around anymore. Here we are together, I thought, in the middle of the muddle.
Next came the emotional impact of all that is perishing in this fire – literal and metaphorical – roaring across our earth. They used to call it shell-shocked in prior wars, this state of seeing everything through the filter of death. The Douglas Firs won’t be able to thrive here. Gone. The seas in my seaside village will rise, swallowing my town slowly. The children I adore are cursed with scrambling for survival. Forget the old dream of each generation doing better than the last. Or the current media stories of millennials never even getting to the level their parents have enjoyed. There’s a nightmare waiting for the little ones.
Friends tried to comfort me. There’s good news, they’d say. Look at this project or read that story. Such points of light, though, were swallowed by the darkness of bleaching corals and bubbling methane and calving ices sheets. The weather made me cry. The Empire penguins losing their homes made me cry. The loss of bugs. The loss of birds and the morning chorus. I sobbed over each random story of some new part of the web of life winking out. Not because these are indicators of the bigger picture but that each precious life is perishing because of greed, blindness, addiction to normalcy, the religion of growth, hubris. These are not normal times, yet almost everyone seems to be sleep walking. People and animals and whole species are dying too soon. I felt like the prophets of old, haggard in rags in the public square, preaching collapse while the romans ate, drank and were merry.
I knew I was being uncooperative. It’s impolite to not cheer up, to be the death of the party, the Eeyore of climate chaos, the depressive in the corner. But I could not go back into can-do solutionary mode, and the path forward felt like night in an endless forest. I just had to let grief have its way with me. Guaranteed, it was no fun. I wasn’t taking dark pleasure in my pain, being significant in another macabre way. I was despondent and lamenting and it felt like the rightest response to the suffering we have caused. Because we’ve done this. Just because I’ve been a Pied Piper of Frugality doesn’t get me off the hook. I was born now on the planet. I’ve inherited the entirety of human history and especially the world view of Western Civilization: dominance, separation, profit, progress, growth, wealth. Not special. Not separate. Not holier than any thou out there. No smarter. No better equipped. Another naked human, shivering.
What broke the spell? In part it was recognizing that this enveloping sadness was actually weakening my emotional sturdiness. It’s one thing to grieve. It’s another to enter unremitting despondency and not take care of yourself. I applied emotional first aid. Activated foundational faith in the essential goodness of life – and in me. Recited gratitudes for my blessings, and there are so many. Gratitude began filling my well, not as a resistance to grief but as a poultice on the wounds. I invited myself to dinner with friends and spent a long evening in the gloaming speaking of this gloom and they simply listened and cared.
Then I discovered the Positive Deep Adaptation Facebook Group. More later about Jem Bendell, the academic and sustainability leader who published a well-referenced paper a year ago that sparked a rapidly spreading conversation, on the PDA Facebook forum and elsewhere, about what time it really is on Planet Earth. Are there any critical paths left to reversing climate change or at least stopping the rise in atmospheric CO2 dead in its tracks? The core assumption you buy into on the forum is this: collapse is inevitable, catastrophe is probably and extinction for humans is possible.
I dove in and found literally thousands of people who are right where I am – shock and grief. They talk about powerlessness and disbelief. They talk about personal and local resilience strategies – gardens and water systems. They wonder whether marches and speeches do anything. They wander into wondering whether famine, overpopulation, environmental refugees and racism will lead to a Mad Max scenario or whether our better angels will still be singing. They talk about what kinds of economic, financial and money systems might replace predatory capitalism. The post pictures of gardens and articles that inspire and talk about where to move. The disagree without debating. They ask questions that elicit hundreds of comments, almost none snarky or belligerent. I spent hours reading every post and the comment strings, finding myself in so many places. The nearly 7000 members accelerated my learning, added fine detail to my nascent thoughts, added comments to my comments – the biggest bestest global conversation I’ve ever had among peers peering into an unknown future. You can feel despondent and crazy when you’re the only one you know going through climate grief because we’ve lost the prevention game and are into the unknown waters of how to adapt.
Through this I found some footing in this new world where bravery means facing facts not fighting dragons.
Here’s the map I made for myself (likely copied from someone else, maybe Jem):
Prevention –> Mitigation –> Adaptation –> Deep Adaptation
My journey started when I closed the door on prevention and to my many creative strategies for standing in the flow of history like a traffic cop. I accepted that mitigation is the best we can do. There is so much we can do to mitigate the effects of rising CO2 in the atmosphere. Project Drawdown outlines a hundred known strategies and ranks them by efficacy. A lot have to do with agriculture, a topic that I’ve studied and written about and promoted locally through my book Blessing the Hands that Feed Us and the 10-Day Local Food Challenge. I reviewed my notes from the Global Earth Repair Conference where the possibility of regenerative practices – from water to food to shelter – scaling to meet some portion of the consequences and started informing myself about the state of the movement and best strategies and legal frameworks.
Mitigation is a kick-ass occupation, especially when you don’t mistake it for prevention, as though we could turn future collapse back to the past climate stability. I think this is a very common mistake, because so many strategies have the fervor of solutions rather than the maturity of doing what’s needed. If you are a sustainability professional, as Jem Bendell was and still is, you have a stake in the space of prevention staying open. It’s both what you do and what you believe will work. What the shock and grief accomplished was stripping even subtle forms of climate consequences denial that infused my uber-cool strategies.
An article by Jonathan Franzen in the New Yorker that mirrors the Deep Adaptation understanding came under blazing fire from sustainability professionals. Do we have to be in denial of death in order to lead and inspire and make crucial decisions? Does recognizing that we are in the era of consequences – that what we’ve already done is enough to end the 500-year story of endless economic growth – enervate activists? It did for me in those months of shock and grief, but I was coming out of this… but into what?
I realized that I was in a different and somewhat disorienting territory. If I am not doing my projects in order to make specific changes I believe can be tipping points, what’s the point? Why do anything? All change work involves strategies and tactics. Would working for change now be like the classic loyal Japanese soldier found in the woods years after the war ended, still fighting? Or is there a different change? Or a different way to do anything?
I gave up the phrase “in order to”
as in I am doing this in order to have that happen. It was like taking all the vowels out of the alphabet. I became mute about anything other than observations in the present moment. I didn’t answer emails “in order to.” Or read books “in order to.” Or hang out with friends “in order to.” Things were what they were. I did what I did. I had no linear explanations for why. Had I needed to change things in the past “in order to” feel better? Assuage my conscience? Shut out the horror of living among predatory, selfish people willing to crash Nature to party on? Do I go to bed “in order to sleep in order to be rested in order to have a good next day or be effective in something? Do I eat “in order to” live? Be healthy? Quash feelings? If I give up “in order to” am a defector from active engagement in supporting or creating much needed change? Am I giving up the fight when I give up the instrumental reason? Am I going all gooey and hippy? Giving up “in order to” stopped the busy buzz of mental processing. Was “in order to” a koan?
At the risk of being corny, what came in as I emptied my transactional mind was love. The grief had picked the lock of my heart and a sense of great love arose along with great honor to just have a human heart that can feel love. I act in love, not in order to love. I do what I do in love, with all my talents, skills, connections in service to us as we emerge from the cocoon of endless growth into these stories of loss, disruption, danger and reorientation. If I am of use, great. If who or what I know can help someone, somehow, great. If my strategic mind is needed as we all search for a way through our predicament, wonderful. I’d preached “we’re all in this together” to stop others with their reckless addiction to growth as good. Now, thanks to not-knowing, I know truly that we’re all in this together.
Through this reckoning with shock and grief, and finding community among people seeing what I see, I’d moved into responding to the climate crisis in ways that fit for me. Friends and I are hosting a witness circles called Breathing Together as the Climate Changes. I’m on a committee to product a community event that will include county officials – from commissioners to mayors to agencies to businesses and NGOs. I’m pressuring the county for a Climate Action Plan to at least raise the conversation about mitigation and adaptation locally. The PDA Community Action group is discussing how to have online Deep Adaptation Groups and I’m considering becoming a host. I joined our teens for the School Strike. I’m helping a Permaculture Teacher plan a workshop on my island to help prepare us for what’s ahead. And I included Deep Adaptation in my recent 5-day workshop on Money Life and Meaning – and the group was grateful to have the elephant of climate change in our midst.
These are actions, yes, but all come from this shock and grief process. It’s not activism per se. It’s responding from an activated heart. I am not pressuring anyone, but more than ever I’m a force to be reckoned with because I’m showing up and speaking truth and risking rejection or ridicule or worse. I’m not just focused on Deep Adaptation. I’m working on mitigation and adaptation strategies as well at every level of scale – personal to global.
I feel spacious, present and happy. The shock, grief and response phases have freed me, widened my scope like a mother’s birth canal widening to let a child be born. I am not resisting inevitable climate collapse. Nor am I disabled by grief. It’s a strange state because I am working full on for change without thinking we will change in time to avoid the prognosis.
This process of metabolizing our climate predicament I call:
Shock –> Grief –> Respond –> Relief –> Repeat.
Repeat means that we’ll keep experiencing shock and grief and being called to respond from our hearts again and again as conditions change. We’ll be in acceptance and resistance and lamenting and engaging all at once or in sequence in the years ahead as we see how things unfold. If this is the end of our way of life, of relative safety, of our species, we are in this together. We are mitigating and adapting and feeling and thinking in concert.
In the Deep Adaptation Forum, I wrote:
“I let the grief and despondency grind through my defenses this last half year as I confronted the inevitability of the math and the accelerated timetable of climate chaos. Surprisingly, I’ve popped through to a state of curiosity creativity and spaciousness. What was pulverized: my dejection and anger that nothing I’d done in my 30 years of activism had prevented this, and my illusion of control and agency (if I do x then y will happen), and my self-imposition of false responsibility for people who’ve looked to me for guidance, my pride that I’ve been ahead of the curve (and am now in the confusion and despair soup with everyone). I refused to be consoled because what we are facing isn’t touched by normal encouragement to buck up or look at the good side. I’ve shared here and with local friends each step of the journey. I am also taken the Good Grief Network course – based on the 12-Step programs – which I highly recommend. Before my heart was ground down along with my will, I activated self-care to put a floor under my descent. Perhaps I was served by having had cancer and undertaken the Descent journey of the Inanna myth so am familiar with the blessing of the stripping away. Both lead to an emptiness that seems to precede a natural buoyancy from lightness rather than exuberance. I still have a kit bag of strategies I’ve expressed through books and projects and games etc, but the need to push these out to “save us” or even “save” those who listen is gone. And I’m sure I will learn more skills/ strategies/ games as time goes on. I can still write and speak to groups. As others travel from prevention to mitigation to adaptation I can offer what I’ve learned along the way. So I think it’s the pressure to solve our dilemma and all the handmaidens of resistance to reality that has left my body mind and heart. Prior to this process, creativity curiosity and spaciousness might have felt like denial or resistance or feral seeking an opening in the wall – but now it’s unencumbered. For the nonce until the next round…”
This is much like the experience of going from diagnosis and treatment to prognosis and preparing to die. When a close friend was diagnosed with lymphoma, treatment began and he seemed to be responding well. At least the cancer was contained. We all went on with life as usual, helping him adjust to this new reality. Four years from diagnosis, the cancer turned into aggressive leukemia. The doctor gave him weeks to live- at best. It was clear I had gone to sleep on how fatal this cancer could be. I got busy researching alternative treatments as if we could fish a miracle out of the hat. We all got reactive while he went stoic and refused to have any long faces around him. No one really knew what to do. Just as the doctor ordained, he was dead in 2 weeks. Most of us have these experiences of loss of a loved one. They are so unbelievably painful and the prospect of saying goodbye in every detail to our way of life may be too excruciating for any of us.
One final aside. Concurrent with this process, I’ve been untangling a long buried relationship trauma. About the time I came to the climate relief phase, I’d gotten to what seems to be the root of my personal issue and the energy of it left my body. I wonder if this is an accidental parallel or if the shock of climate consequences will kick up old traumas in many people. Will we need climate therapists? Climate social workers? Climate coaches? Are people in these professions ready to receive the influx of traumatized people? Are amateurs like me hosting climate witness circles able to widen our circles. The Positive Deep Adaptation network is looking at hosting witness circles via Zoom. I’m sure the professions are waking up to this. For example, Leslie Davenport, author of Emotional Resilience in the Era of Climate Change is developing understanding and practices.
Back to the Deep Adaptation paper by Jem Bendell and the Deep Adaptation online groups. I recommend you read the paper carefully and follow up with his blog. He is offering an expansive, clear framework for us to weave into our lives. Join the Positive Deep Adaptation Group. There’s a search box so any topic that interests you can pop up.
I love the four R’s/ Deep Adaptation questions he poses in his paper. They help us focus our minds and work.
- Resilience: what do we most value that we want to keep and how?
- Relinquishment: what do we need to let go of so as not to make matters worse?
- Restoration: what could we bring back to help us with these difficult times?
- Reconciliation: with what and whom shall we make peace as we awaken to our mutual mortality?
In his paper he says:
“In pursuit of a conceptual map of “deep adaptation,” we can conceive of resilience of human societies as the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances so as to survive with valued norms and behaviors. Given that analysts are concluding that a social collapse is inevitable, the question becomes: What are the valued norms and behaviors that human societies will wish to maintain as they seek to survive? That highlights how deep adaptation will involve more than “resilience.” It brings us to a second area of this agenda, which I have named “relinquishment.” It involves people and communities letting go of certain assets, behaviors and beliefs where retaining them could make matters worse. Examples include withdrawing from coastlines, shutting down vulnerable industrial facilities, or giving up expectations for certain types of consumption. The third area can be called “restoration.” It involves people and communities rediscovering attitudes and approaches to life and organization…”
The paper didn’t include the last question about Reconciliation. He and the whole community are learning together what adaptation at this level means.
The conversation is open and ongoing.
Repeating and evolving. We are learning together. You are welcome in. Your voice is needed. Your transformation of shock and grief into response and relief is needed. We’re all in this together. Humanity finally has a common challenge. It’s not the Russians or the Chinese or the Middle East. It’s our way of life based on our addiction to oil in service to progress, domination, exploitation, winning that is being shut down by how natural systems are responding to the demands and assaults. Will we rise to it? Stay tuned.