Addiction Recovery & the 5 Stages of Climate Grief

Glow from an oil rig off the shore of California.

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?

11 comments to Addiction Recovery & the 5 Stages of Climate Grief

  • Allen Thoma

    I appreciate your analysis of our current situation and candor about your concerns about “coming out” to your readers about your positions – i.e. Global Warming. I am heartened that someone else thinks like I do. I run the gamut almost daily from Stages 4 and 5. I move from depression that the world is not waking up to this problem and may not do so in time; to doing what I can to change my lifestyle, all the while supporting all those who speak for urgent and unparalleled action. I feel that I am changing my lifestyle (consuming less, buying less, becoming a minimalist, vegan, biking)and at the same time supporting those politically that fight for action, and pushing everyone I meet to work to save this planet and its climate. I find hope and encouragement from people like yourselves that are living their values and aligning those values (via critical thinking) with a push for a just and sustainable world. Keep speaking out, I for one love you for it.

    • We feel the love Allen! It always makes us happy to know there are others out there implementing change any way they can and it’s a comfort knowing others are struggling with similar issues. Stages 4 & 5 are tough ones for sure.

      Thank you, thank you, thank you for commenting and following us and giving us your support. You’re as much a part of this journey as we are!

  • Great post Shelia!

    Tammy and I share that hesitancy in discussing peak oil and climate change as motivators in our lifestyle decisions. We of course discuss the topics with friends and family but we hesitate to blog and discuss the topic in the media. I guess its high time we stopped that…

    For motivational links, I would suggest your readers check out:

    Peak Moment – Television conversations about community solutions.

    The End of Growth – Book by Richard Heinberg

    What a way to go: life at the end of empire – Movie by Tim Bennett (can be watched for free at various places around the web)

  • Logan, you are fantastic!

    I not only visited Peak Moment this week to watch an episode but also just told Kai yesterday that I wanted to post a review of Tim’s movie on our site (coming soon!). We watched “What a way to go” months before we left Vermont and found it to be one of the most honest and compelling movies out there on climate change. Of course, we think Richard Heinberg and Derrick Jensen are both must reads. Excellent suggestions! Thank you.

  • Wow! Thanks Shelia! 🙂

    You may want to check out Jania and Robyn’s interview with Tim on the making of his film. It was one on their first episodes.

  • Since our brief Twitter exchange regarding this post, I’ve written some new lyrics for Joni Mitchell’s song. “Urge For Going”. I feel it is something that comes out of having spent an extended time—about 5 years now—mostly in the 5th stage; a decade oscillating between the 4th and 5th stages. Grief, not anger, is what I have experienced relative to the third stage, and this has influenced how both my 1st and 3rd stages have expressed themselves. My adult life has been oriented to learning, watching, and understanding what we have chosen to create, and why. My label for the first stage, and it doesn’t really apply to the grieving, but a discovery process, is “Curiosity”. The third stage in this learning/engaged process, I’d label “Implementation”. In that stage’s efforts I failed on multiple fronts, and over a twenty year span of time. Hence both the grief AND retuning to the first stage to figure out the cause of my failures. In my experience your fears of being socially ostracized are valid ones. Those in denial will regroup to protect their means of denial. A sense of health, ironically, demands this. And if you want to experience how complex and convoluted this is, try to consider how much minimalism is just a creative way of expressing denial.

    Here are the new lyrics:

    suffer’n’s settl’n in

    I woke up today and found, frost gone from the ground
    And also in the frozen north, the summer’s ice not found
    And when the waning sun does warm
    Where ‘fore it’s lows did hold the cold—not this new norm
    I get that we are dying, and all we do is lie
    And I get that we are lying, when the greenhouse gas is on the rise,
    Wintertime reduced in size, suffer’n’s settl’n in.

    And in my summertime I dreamed, a summer colored lie
    And all my peers and I agreed, of warnings, not to spy.
    But when up north the change afoot,
    Comes stomping down to trample all my best laid plans
    I get that we are dying, and all we do is lie
    And I get that we are lying, when the greenhouse gas is on the rise,
    Wintertime reduced in size, suffer’n’s settl’n in.

    And the ‘warriors’—the climatehawks—are wishing for the past
    ‘Cause all that lives is dying, for death its life we fast.
    See the geese in chevron flight, headed north a month before they used to go
    For them there is no lying, the warmth is on the rise
    They don’t get that we are dying, of the greenhouse gas no means apprise,
    Nor wintertime’s new reduced size, nor suffer’n’s settl’n in.

    But I’ll power up my ‘lectric car, made from burning coal
    Or just use a ‘better’ one—to prove I’ve got no soul
    I’d like to go back to the days
    When self-restraint was seen within a purple haze
    But I get that I was dying, and all I do is lie
    And I get that I aint trying, while the greenhouse gas is on the rise,
    Empire’s reach is oversized, suffer’n ‘s settl’n in.
    And I get that we aren’t trying, while the greenhouse gas is on the rise,
    Wintertime reduced in size, suffer’n’s settl’n in, suffer’n’s settl’n in.

    © 2012 greg robie

    • Hi Greg,

      Thanks for commenting. We’ve been hit and miss with internet lately so sorry for not responding sooner to your twitter comments. I’m not much in to social media like Twitter, and the 140 characters tend to restrict a clear line of communication sometimes, especially one like you were trying to relay, which seemed to be your particular theory about consuming/capitalism.

      Obviously, the majority of the developed world is in denial about the global issues we face. I can also see what you’re getting at with people being in denial. Somebody who recycles and composts but doesn’t change anything else in their lives are obviously taking the path of least guilt (i.e. denial). Kai & I did that for years, and are still doing it to a certain extent. As far as people who truly embrace minimalism and restraint, and effort to see how actions and choices affect things, my opinion is that they are not in denial but are taking the only action they can as individuals, over things that are within their control, to affect what little change they can (despite that their efforts are continuously being outweighed by the developed and developing world). Making a choice not to be complicit is not saying that you deny the fact that we don’t have a rosy future, or that you think your individual action will affect any grand change. However, there is always a hope in a person’s heart that individuals, when acting in multitudes around the world, become powerful enough to actually affect some change.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, we really appreciate it!

  • Hi Sheila,

    You write too well to for the 140 character limit of Twitter to offer you much beyond frustration. For me it means I’ve only wasted 140 characters effecting ‘a failure to communicate’. Anyway, thanks for the VERY prompt response. You may not be into social media, but it sounds like you are—yet—feeling the pressure an addiction to it can create. 😉

    This post on addiction and stages of climate grief prompted me to reply to you, first via Twitter, and then, when a break appeared in my homesteading responsibilities and #Occupy efforts, with the previous comment. As an effort to avoid participating in the corrupting the meaning of words, in a scientific construct, a personal theory (“your particular…”) would be a hypothesis. An hypothesis can only be a theory after a it has withstood a great deal of examination and criticism.

    If I hear you correctly, the hypothesis I you are advocating relates to addictions to consumerism and oil being our social evils. Social and biological sciences would counter that supposition. It can be observed that consumerism is a means to an end, and oil equivalent slaves are the means for rationalizing the credit that feeds the consumerism. Anyway, my intent in my earlier communication was to show, systemically, how “In [Debt} We Trust”, and why—it is an efficient iteration of slavery; that to ‘think different’ requires transforming slavery into community.

    I started watching “What A Way To Go” with my wife. Thanks for the link. Given when it was released (2007), that, as far as I’ve watched (Chapter 9), Tim misses that peak oil is also peak credit is not too surprising to me. It isn’t so much what oil will cost as demand outstrips supply that will be difficult—such can be adapted to—it is what declining creditworthiness will do to the existing trusted economic models for the debt that globalized capitalism is dependent on; that debt-slavery affords. A question I find worth thinking about is what will be the next iteration of slavery that will be instituted once the flash-frozen collapse of debt based capitalism thaws, should fear, not love, defines it.

    More later, once I finish the movie—and address the wandering issues my flock is presenting me with today (I’m restricting them to their pasture for the first time since last October, and they are letting me know that they feel otherwise). What you reflect on as being obvious, may also be obviously something else as well. Integrating multiple perspectives—and using English for doing so—is a bit of a challenge no matter how many characters a character uses.


    • You’ve given us lots to ponder Greg 🙂 I just picked up Richard Heinberg’s most recent book which should fit in nicely with thinking about your comments on debt slavery. Your statement: ” A question I find worth thinking about is what will be the next iteration of slavery that will be instituted once the flash-frozen collapse of debt based capitalism thaws, should fear, not love, defines it.” hits me strongly in the gut. Yes, I think that is something worth pondering (and fighting for).

      Thanks again for getting in touch. (And for taking care of the flock!). 🙂

  • Cathy Gage

    I don’t know if you are looking at responses on this blog issue…but in case you are, please help those of us “older” people understand how we can do things like not driving or using any form of transportation that doesn’t use oil products. I whole heartedly would love to be able to ride a bike but disability and age does not make that possible. So any suggestions, would be pondered and appreciated.

    I too am dreaming my way toward a tiny house and loved all the good information you’ve provided so far in that regard.

    Thanks for sharing your journey…this is as far as I’ve gotten going back to the beginning of your blog but plan on continuing the journey along with you.

    • Kai

      Cathy – Thanks for your interest and also for you question. Its great that you are open to exploring the possible alternatives to fossil fuel powered transportation that exist. We also appreciate the opportunity to specifically address the issue of limited mobility and/or disability as it relates to transportation alternatives.

      The answer in your particular case likely depends on several factors, some of which include where you live (urban, peri-urban, or rural), what country you live in, what physical ailments you have, your level of dedication, your level of technical knowledge, perhaps your local climate and your present economic situation, etc. How far you are willing to take this also plays into what your options may be.

      Aside from the obvious electrically-powered mass transit options (electric trains, subways and streetcars), there are human- and electric-powered “personal” options that exist for those folks limited by certain physical conditions. These include, but are not limited to, hand trikes, electric scooters, Segways, electrically-assisted velomobiles (or this) or hand-powered or electrically-powered wheelchairs, some of the latter of which can navigate stairs and/or stand upright. There’s even a company in New Zealand producing an albeit expensive but nonetheless amazing electric robot walker – essentially a set of wearable legs – called “Rex” that allows paraplegics to walk upright. Another option for some might be a horse- or donkey-drawn cart or carriage or perhaps an electric golf cart or NEV (Neighborhood Electric Vehicle).

      On the far end of the spectrum, of course, exists a plethora of high-speed electric vehicles (EV’s). When paired with an onsite solar charging station these intricate machines allow owners to travel great distances at highway speeds while avoiding direct consumption of fossil fuels. Its important to note, however, that as the relative size and level of technology increases – as in the case of a modern EV versus say, a hand trike – so do the cost and the overall resource footprint of the product. This makes high-speed EV’s very expensive and far less sustainable then a simple human-powered transport. That said, their footprint can be minimized by going with a pre-owned EV or even an IC (internal combustion) car that’s been converted into an EV. Our favorite of the former is the relatively simple Kewet “Buddy” that hails from Norway (but would need to be imported if outside Norway).

      The sky’s the limit when it comes to high speed EV’s, the ultimate of these likely being the products manufactured by Tesla.

      Alternatively, some may find it an option to move closer to an urban center in order to take advantage of paved surfaces, concrete sidewalks, etc. as long as the chosen location includes curb-cuts, elevators and other infrastructure designed to facilitate travel by those using wheelchairs and/or people who are hard-of-sight. Living nearer to necessities and amenities like farmers markets, food cooperatives, grocery stores, hospitals, libraries, theaters, parks, workplaces, schools, etc. can make it much easier for many to adopt more sustainable modes of travel, sometimes regardless of physical impairments.

      Hopefully this helps answer your question. We encourage others to add to the the list as well. In many cases age and/or disability aren’t in and of themselves barriers that prevent people from moving past fossil-fuel-powered transportation. Just thinking outside the box can present a host of options. Of course, sometimes they are a barrier, and in these cases – as far as we’re concerned – that’s where conventional IC vehicles can earn their keep. But for those who are financially advantaged and/or able-bodied, there is little reason why – for the majority of people out there – mass-transit and alternatively powered and/or human-powered options shouldn’t be the standard.

      Thanks again and keep us in the loop regarding the solution you end up implementing! 🙂

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