Over the last few months of our travels, blatant scenes of a car-enabled and fossil fueled society have unfolded before us. The environmental problems we face as a community have become even more apparent to us from the seat of a bicycle.
When you’ve decided to change every aspect of your life to try to counter the devastating effects of your own behavior, you can imagine how depressing it might be to be constantly reminded, day after day, that we are the minority and that it’s going to take a huge turn-around by everyone, not just us, to realize a sustainable and healthy future.
We’re All Junkies
When we were cycling past the miles of recreational vehicles and oil rigs along the coast of California I was reminded of an article I read recently by Chris Johnstone, an addictions counselor, who reported that addicts often ‘mask hitting rock bottom’ by not allowing themselves to fully see or face the crisis in their lives caused by addiction. Addicts who have been told they are going to die from their addiction literally do not view the news as a crisis but, instead, go on as if nothing is wrong, until they actually hit the lowest possible point in their lives, the last devastating blow before their demise. When a person ‘hits rock bottom’ it can prompt some to ‘wake up’ to reality and take action to try to change course but for others it’s already too late and they continue on in their denial toward their eventual death. Johnstone aptly compares our society’s addiction to oil and denial of climate change to that of a person addicted to drugs. We are a society in denial of climate change and unless we start to recognize our crisis and change our course we will be dealt a devastating and potentially fatal blow.
A New Way to Talk about Climate Change
Johnston recommends we begin implementing a technique used in drug addiction counseling circles called ‘Motivational Interviewing‘ in relation to discussions about climate change. The theory is that instead of lecturing people on the dangers and crisis they face as a result of their addictions, people are given the chance to vocalize their own view of the risks and talk about their own concerns. It allows people the ability to take in information on a detached intellectual level without yet fully accepting or understanding the reality of the situation. Hearing themselves talk about it, experiencing emotional reactions to the information as it’s digested and talking with others helps them to eventually process and take in the truth of the addiction and to begin to accept their own part in it. Once the truth and reality of the situation is realized they can then move forward in changing their behavior and in taking preventative measures, the goal being changing the tide and potentially avoiding ‘hitting rock bottom’ altogether.
Kai & I are Recovering Addicts
Our own rising awareness of our society’s and our own behaviour around fossil fuel consumption, our desire to write about it on this blog, our years of reading about climate change, poring over the facts, talking about it with others, selling our car, buying from socially responsible companies, growing our own food, turning our backs on air and car travel, building a tiny house….every step we take to remove ourselves from our previous lifestyle is a step closer to our own recovery. We are accepting the severity of the crisis that faces us, more and more each day, and we are reacting to it, processing it, feeling the fear, desperation and even the hope that comes with that recognition.
It’s taken us years to process the enormity of climate change and other global problems that thrive on our own personal addictions and consumption habits. Kai and I have had to go through stages of grief to process the realities before us. We’ve bounced between debilitating depression and taking action, with periods of stillness and reflection in between. We’ve made some hard choices about how we’re going to live, now and into the future. It has been, and still is, an enormously personal and difficult journey. Yet, it is also healing in a way. And despite that each day our society doesn’t change the way it lives our chances of survival decreases, we feel a sense of peacefulness, knowing that we are doing everything we can, as we can, at each stage of our own recovery.
The Five Stages of Climate Grief
Johnstone offers a critical question at the end of his article: “What would happen if fear and alarm (to climate change) were welcomed as healthy reactions that show we’ve noticed something dangerous is going on?”.
Nobel Peace Prize winner and climate scientist, Steve Runner, offers us “The 5 Stages of Climate Grief“, adapted from Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief model, to explain what a person must go through before resolving to take action. The 5 stages, aptly summarized below by editor Katherine Hawthorne, are:
Running claims denial occurs when people just do not want to believe the Earth is becoming warmer. Or people may deny they are the cause. As of 2011, measurements of atmospheric CO2 levels conducted by the Earth Observatory at NASA confirm a yearly increase of the gas since 1957. According to Steven Running, many people dismiss this increase as a natural occurrence, but scientific evidence that humans are the main cause helps reduce the number of people in denial.
According to Running, many people jump from denial to acceptance once the evidence becomes clear. Those who enter the anger stage do so because of a single realization: Accepting the problem means they will have to change their lifestyle substantially. Many people do not like change and are content with the status quo. The subconscious tends to make people think that if they ignore a problem, it either does not exist or will go away. Some people find it easier to ignore a problem than take action against it, especially when it does not seem like a direct threat.
Bargaining, in reference to climate grief, manifests as a combination of denial, anger and acceptance. People in this stage tend to accept climate change as par for the course and begin to think it might not be so bad. Making cold places warmer could be a good thing, for example. In the bargaining stage, people look for positive aspects in hopes that global warming won’t be as bad as scientists predict.
People become depressed when they realize the speed of warming is unprecedented and reversing the damage is likely impossible. People who reach the final Stage 5 of Acceptance often sink back to Stage 4 Depression on occasion. Running suggests that solutions to the growing problem of global warming may seem overwhelming at times.
Acceptance means acknowledging scientific evidence and beginning to search for solutions. Those who have entered this stage are willing to make necessary changes within their own lifestyle and help others through the five stages of climate grief. Running acknowledges the lack of evidence showing the possibility of stopping global warming but adamantly states, “Doing nothing is unconscionable.”
Time to Stop Apologizing :: Time to Start Challenging
I often fear that you, our readers and friends, may go away from our blog posts or website thinking we are overreacting , or melo-dramatic, or alarmists. We have found ourselves, in the past, holding back from saying everything we want to say about certain subjects in order not to cause people to become uncomfortable. Our fear is that we’ll come off as preachy and self-righteous and we don’t want to turn people away. After all, we’re trying to build a community that helps support people, including us, to critically think about how we affect the world, and to promote change, one small step at a time.
That being said, we’ve suddenly found ourselves at a stage in our own recovery in which we are no longer willing to hold our tongues in order to enable other people to feel comfortable with their own damaging behavior. Of course, we have no control over what others choose to do, and no one can change unless they are open to facing that change on a personal level but that doesn’t diminish the fact that we share global problems and that how you live your life directly affects my future and vice versa. For that reason, it’s imperative that we recognize our connection to each other and our responsibility to each other. This isn’t just about one person approaching ‘rock bottom’ and their individual freedom or choice to do so. If you don’t get over your own addiction, you’re taking the rest of us down with you!
It’s time to stop delicately approaching the subject, to stop waffling. We need to start challenging each other, while also recognizing that each of us may be at different stages of their own addiction recovery. It’s time we start asking each other the tough questions, and to start drastically changing the way we live.
Where are you in the stages of grief? Take a look at your daily actions. What things do you currently do that are negatively impacting our global health? And what are you doing to change your behavior? What do you see people doing on a daily basis that drives us closer to hitting ‘rock bottom’? Where do you find hope and motivation? What books have you read or movies have you watched that have helped you realize the critical nature of climate change?