Earth’s terminal illness and the five stages of grief

The Earth is screwed; to fuel the recent capitalist transformation of the planet, humans have binged on fossil fuels and over-exploited the world’s natural resources- and continue to do so at an ever increasing rate. The fossil fuel drinking marathon is having the unfortunate side-effect of causing catastrophic climate change and because of the connection between energy growth and economic growth- this binge will continue until the system collapses. Superficial climate agreements like the Cop21 won’t achieve anything significant as they don’t address the root of the problem: an economic system based on exploiting fossil fuel energy and other raw resources- which would collapse without indefinite exponential growth.

Together, climate change and global environmental issues will likely bring an end to global civilisation– in the same way over-exploitation of the environment has been a key factor in the fall of many previous human civilisations.

In other words: the planet as we know it is dying rapidly, it has a terminal illness due to the cancer of capitalism (which could only be removed through the destabilising and dangerous process of a violent revolution, I would argue). The planetary corpse left will be in a form completely unlike it is today; most likely a radioactive wasteland, courtesy of the coming resource wars over the remaining fossil fuels and water.

An oil field at sunset

The five stages of grief

While the five stages of grief are usually applied in the context of the death of someone, the concept can be applicable to a situation where an individual contracts a terminal illness. Therefore, I think the five stages can be applied to our very own planet, what fun!

  1. Denial

I think a lot of people are at this early stage. First of all, there are of course a significant proportion of people who deny the science of climate change altogether. But more importantly (and more interestingly), I think there are many who ostensibly acknowledge the science and are generally aware of the grave warnings of climate scientists- but who don’t truly believe that the worst of it will actually happen. There seems to be a widely held faith in human intelligence as a species and a intuitive scepticism of the most severe predictions; “We’ll sort it out in the end” and “But it won’t be that bad, will it?” are commonly held sentiments. Denial of the predictions could be due to the seemingly incomprehensible scenarios that we have to mentally process. Unprecedented droughts and floods, mega-storms, sea-level rise, cataclysmic crop failures, hundreds or perhaps billions displaced… It is extremely difficult to accurately imagine these sorts of terrifying changes at such a large scale, the world you have to picture is just so different and ultimately so terrifying that I think many people just completely switch off when reading about the worst predictions.

  1. Anger

I was at this stage for quite a while. I mean, industrial human activity is destroying the planet at a rapacious rate and essentially, nothing is being done about it. In fact, an alien explorer sitting in its spaceship & observing our planet from afar might understandably come to the conclusion that we’re actively trying to ruin our planet. Globally, subsidies of at least half a trillion dollars are provided to the fossil fuel industry every year, we have already cut down more than half of our rainforests, Earth has lost over half its wildlife in the past 40 years and our economic system is based around indefinite exponential growth, as if something like that could last.

All this can arise a fair amount of justifiable anger; after all none of this was unavoidable. Human decisions to implement an economic system based on endless growth, greed and exploitation ultimately led to the current crisis.

  1. Bargaining

The bargaining stage is characterised by an irrational focus on trying to negotiate with a higher power, e.g. some sort of divine being. For example someone may make promises to god in return for the pain from a terminal illness or a death to recede.

I would say this is probably the least applicable stage to the concept of Earth having a terminal illness. (Or in other words, I admittedly know very little about the religious response to climate change- apart from the fact that Pope Francis has been an extremely powerful and admirable voice raising awareness about the issue and loudly condemning the lack of action). What I would say here however, is that I agree with journalist Chris Hedges in that there is likely to be a rise in ‘crisis cults’ in response to the incipient global calamities, many of which will have a quasi-religious basis.

  1. Depression

There is a great article online which details (albeit largely anecdotal) evidence about apparently widespread depression within the climate-science community. For one, things are already really bad- just look at the phenomenal rate of decline in Arctic sea ice- or the growing evidence that huge amounts of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) are being released from methane clathrates in the Arctic ocean floor.

But more importantly, what is at stake is a habitable planet. The idea of something like that is inherently depressing. What’s the point in anything if everything is pretty much doomed in the long run? As the philosopher Samuel Scheffler details in a brilliant edition of the Radio 4 programme Analysis, a key underlying motivating force in our lives is the belief and knowledge that humanity will continue to exist after we pass away. If that belief disappears, we’re left with a very miserable situation indeed- such as the world depicted in Children of Men, a film based in a dystopian future where all women have mysteriously become infertile.

  1. Acceptance

I think I’ve partially reached this stage. I have certainly lost all sense of optimism about the future- which is sort of acceptance, albeit with a depressive tint. But, on the other hand I recognise that there will hopefully be at least a few decades left of (rapidly weakening) stability in the global North; even with the severe environmental issues that humanity faces, modern civilisation should be able to trundle along for as long as there is an abundance of fossil fuel resources (which there is, at least into the very-near future). And so for the moment, there is nothing stopping me from trying to maximise my own happiness, as I am pretty sure that for most of my life I will be living in a stable-ish and just-about-functioning society. So far, the only major impact on my life choices that the environmental crises have caused is the decision to never to have children, as I think it would be completely immoral to bring a child into a civilisation which is almost sure to collapse within their lifetime. However, I never really wanted kids anyway- so bottoms up, let’s all cheers to the apocalypse!


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