As Earth Day 2012 approaches, I feel both grief and optimism. Elisabeth Kubler–Ross described five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. One response to grief for the world is the Great Turning, which is turning the industrial growth society into a life-sustaining civilization, as described by Joanna Macy. There are three aspects to the Great Turning: actions to protect life on Earth, analyses of structural causes of ecosystem destruction and creation of alternative structures, and shifts in consciousness.
The stages of grief are not necessarily felt in a linear order, and one can feel more than one stage at a time. The experience of grief for the world is like a spiral that weaves through the stages. For example, I feel profound sadness and despair if I really let myself think about polar bears drowning after swimming for miles because of the loss of sea ice due to global warming, or if I let myself experience what it must be like to be the mother of a young child who is dying of starvation.
It is easy to find examples of denial. Anger can be an extension of denial, as in anger toward environmentalists. However, anger also occurs when one is moving out of denial, as in anger toward those who are destroying the environment. Although long-term effective actions in defense of the environment are best fueled by gratitude for life, anger often initially propels one to participate in the Great Turning by taking actions, such as joining protests.
Bargaining occurs when one is not ready to give up on the industrial growth society. For example, one could agree to controls to limit pollution from burning fossil fuels, but would want to continue using fossil fuels rather than moving to solar and wind. As Bill McDonough, sustainability expert, has said, “being less bad is not being good.” However, being in the bargaining stage of grief for the Earth may lead one to the second aspect of the Great Turning: As one begins to analyze how to limit harm to the environment, one may find solutions in structural alternatives such as communities designed for walking, mass transit, and shared gardens.
Depression immobilizes us. There are 100 million prescriptions written for antidepressants every year in America. Although one may argue about the causes, it is hard to argue that depression is not an issue for Americans. There are many proximate causes of depression, but an underlying cause is the interconnection of people with the Earth. The collective unconscious of 7 billion people, many of whom live in poverty, can’t help but notice shrinking resources and growing pollution. We are interconnected whether we are aware of it or not.
Acceptance allows one to face reality and feel gratitude for life. Then one can effectively participate in the three aspects of the Great Turning over the long term without attachment to outcome. This involves the third aspect of the Great Turning—living one’s life from a new perspective born from cognitive insights such as general living systems theory and from spiritual awakening to the sacred nature of all life and of our planet, Earth. No individual can solve the environmental crisis, but each person can play a role: take an action, participate in an alternative structure, or facilitate changes in consciousness. What stage(s) of grief for the Earth are you in? What role(s) will you play in the Great Turning?
Sandy Olliges, M.A., teaches academic writing at San Jose State University. She is a former Environmental Manager for NASA Ames Research Center.