I thought we'd have more time. Boy, was I wrong.
During primary school in the 1980s, I first learned about greenhouse gasses and global warming. I knew what was happening and why, but it felt like we had 100+ years to figure things out. Perhaps I believed the adults would deal with the problem before I grew up.
Now here I am - middle aged - and the generation that first taught me about global warming has done nothing to solve it, and are unlikely to experience any of its effects. Of course, my generation has also had a voice for 30 years and failed to use it.
The reasons are many, but the primary driver behind individual apathy is the assumption climate change was an issue for the future. Over the past several years, a growing number of people have learned this is OUR problem to solve.
Unfortunately, along with this realization came the knowledge that - given entrenched systems, greed and apathy - the climate quagmire is inextricable, and is happening much faster than expected.
Humanity has received a terminal diagnosis and millions of people around the world are first learning of this.
How long do we have, nobody knows. The best we can hope is to muddle through the crises that await us - breadbasket failure, coastal flooding, heat deaths, fascism, genocide, war. This time next century, the global population could be under 1 billion. The transition - already underway - to get there will be terrifying.
Perhaps we slowly grind our way down to a more sustainable population over decades. Or maybe the planet slams into a wall that triggers a rapid phase transition to a completely foreign climatic state.
We simply don't know how much time we have left.
Dealing with grief
The 'collapse-aware' have similarly received a terminal diagnosis - for themselves, their loved ones and humanity. Kübler-Ross's model applies directly to what people feel after learning of our pending collapse.
These stages are not linear and may not be experienced by everyone in the same way or order:
- Denial: This is often the first reaction. The person may struggle to believe the diagnosis is true. Denial is a defense mechanism that softens the initial impact, allows time to absorb the news, and start to process the reality of the situation.
- Anger: As the reality of the situation sets in, feelings of frustration and helplessness may surface. The individual may direct anger towards themselves, loved ones, authorities, or a higher power. Anger can stem from a sense of unfairness.
- Bargaining: In this stage, individuals may mentally negotiate with themselves or a higher power. They might make promises or deals in hopes of changing their prognosis. This stage often involves a lot of "what if" and "if only" statements, reflecting on past decisions and wishing for a different outcome.
- Depression: This stage involves the realization of the inevitable. The individual might withdraw from others, experience deep sadness, and feel a sense of hopelessness or despair. It’s a natural and appropriate response, signifying the true processing of the situation.
- Acceptance: This is not necessarily a stage of being okay with the situation, but rather accepting its reality. The person may start to come to terms with their mortality, engage in meaningful conversations, settle affairs, and try to make the most of their remaining time.
Making the most of our remaining time
In the 1960s Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier ran barbaric experiments to illustrate the concept of "learned helplessness". They placed dogs in cages and generated an electrical current in the floor. Upon initial shock, the dogs would react to avoid the negative stimulus. For a portion of the dogs the shocks were inescapable. Once those dogs learned they couldn't avoid the shocks they stopped moving, accepting their fate.
The collapse-aware are experiencing their own form of learned helplessness. The system is too big to change, and those with the power to influence the system are its benefactors. They will never destroy what provided them their power.
Individuals can change things if we act collectively, but the organization of the masses is beyond reach. For now. Business as usual is satisfactory, so few are motivated to make trouble. Perhaps there will be a tipping point as there was for other societal issues (e.g. gay marriage), but for now the collapse-aware watch from the sidelines.
Digesting the finality of human life, acceptance is the new default for most who have pushed through the various stages of grief. But that doesn't have to mean we simply lay down and wait to die. In acceptance that life is finite each of us can serve a more meaningful purpose.
It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we're alive - to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a façade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are.
- Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Acceptance is the door that opens a new realm of contentment, joy and existential purpose. Like the dogs in the Seligman-Maier experiments, it's easy to slip into a catatonic state of helplessness. However, if you add purpose to suffering the despair lifts.
How you define your purpose is up to you. For many, simply slowing down to notice the world around them and appreciate this unique gift called "life" is enough.
Living with purpose
How can we live knowing everything is crumbling? How does a patient with terminal cancer savor what they have left?
When facing the reality of impending death, navigating your remaining time is a deeply personal and profound journey.
It's crucial to first acknowledge and embrace the wide spectrum of emotions that may arise, including fear, sadness, anger, and moments of joy. Lean on others for emotional support - collapse-aware family, friends, support groups, or professional counseling.
Reflect on your life, its milestones, relationships, and experiences. Share stories with loved ones, write memoirs, or simply indulge in private contemplation. Revisiting your past can create a sense of fulfillment.
Reconcile strained relationships and reconnect with important people in your life. Expressing forgiveness and love often brings peace and closure.
Focus on your quality of life by engaging in enjoyable and fulfilling activities. This might include hobbies, enjoying nature, or hanging out with friends and family. Art, music, or writing are therapeutic outlets and a way to leave a lasting mark on whatever future may come.
Once you break through the despair of climate collapse by creating your purpose, time and experiences take on a liberating new meaning. With acceptance comes the ability to live in the present moment, practice mindfulness, and savor everyday pleasures.
Knowing the days and years are limited gives you permission to focus on your needs over the demands of some corporate bureaucrat.
Prioritize the things you want to do, and put those TPS reports to the side.
What if the emotional anguish never ends?
With the acceptance that human civilization is likely to collapse comes the understanding that personal anguish might never end. We suffer because we care.
Suffering is a fundamental part of the human experience and an integral part of human development. Suffering can lead to personal growth, resilience, and a deeper understanding of oneself and the world.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation,
we are challenged to change ourselves.”
― Viktor E. Frankl
This is an unfortunate reality that many generations before us have endured - some worse than others. Once you accept pain is not simply something to pass, and is part of our purpose, it takes on a greater meaning. Suffering with a sense of meaning can lead to profound personal development.
Existentialist thinkers like Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre have posited that suffering arises from aspects of the human condition, such as freedom, responsibility, and the search for meaning.
In many religious contexts, suffering is also a central theme. For instance, in Buddhism, the First Noble Truth acknowledges that suffering (Dukkha) is an inherent part of life. Christianity, too, deals extensively with the concept of suffering, viewing it as a part of the human condition due to original sin, but also as a means of spiritual growth and closeness to the divine.
"Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl - written based on his experiences in Nazi concentration camps - helps us confront despair by combining suffering with personal purpose. He suggests that life retains potential meaning under all circumstances, even in the grimmest situations.
While we cannot always control what happens to us, Frankl reminds us we have the freedom to choose our response to any situation, including suffering. This perspective empowers individuals to find personal meaning in their experiences, transforming tragedy into a triumph of the human spirit.
Frankl outlines three ways to discover meaning in life: through work or deeds, experiences or encounters with others, and the attitude we adopt in the face of unavoidable suffering.
In the context of biosphere collapse and the terminal decline of human civilization, Frankl's teachings offer a paradigm of hope and resilience. They suggest that meaning can still be found in life, regardless of its brevity or the challenges faced.
This can be achieved by adopting a positive attitude towards your suffering, finding solace in love and relationships, or committing to a cause greater than yourself.