Thursday, May 31, 2012


A Time to Mourn

I've run up against a wall of resistance, deeply set in tangled roots of denial. My last post attempted to understand the most destructive form of denial, that of one half of the viable political parties in this country, which has led to a political impasse on confronting climate issues. A much more common and pervasive form comes from the huge numbers of us who are too comfortable with our lifestyles to contemplate life and policy changes that would afford the opportunity for personal transformation, community renewal, and simple survival of global civilization. This group largely accepts that climate change is occuring, but hopes that somehow we will escape the worst and muddle through. But neither of these constitutes the wall I speak of. This is a more subtle form of denial, now hampering my work as a facilitator of despair and empowerment work around climate issues. It comes from the climate activists themselves, who are not in denial about climate change, but of their own underlying fear, grief, and despair.

When I first started working with groups about climate change more than a decade ago, participants generally accepted the science and recognized that we had a monumental task. Though each of us alone couldn't do much, together in a wave similar to the civil rights movement, we could elect politicians who we could push to enact policy, including a global treaty to reduce carbon emissions. It was a huge job, but we had time, some wiggle room. In the fall of 2007 James Hansen, who has always been ahead of the curve, declared that the global community had “ten years” to make significant reductions in CO2 emissions. Deniers dismissed his statement, the large middle group felt comforted that we still might have time, and thus when we elected a president who understood the seriousness of the issue, yet chose to prioritize health care reform in the small window he had to do something significant, not many citizens understood that very likely our last, best chance to avert climate catastrophe was missed.

This past fall, the conservative International Energy Agency confirmed what Hansen had said four years before, that we have five years to make significant initial reductions to avert a steep slide into irreversible levels of warming and steep shifts in the hydrological cycle. On the cusp of another election, we are now just about out of wiggle room, and the candidates have not chosen to make climate an issue. The work to reduce emissions goes on at local levels, including a growing list of municipalities. But the UN framework is moribund, with the agenda for the Rio Plus Twenty conference later this month long ago settled by big international companies and a small group of countries, led by the US, that have undermined real climate progress for several years now. It's very much like the scripted political conventions we will witness this summer. NGO's plan a massive siege of the conference, but this tactic, though producing powerful images and snatches of eloquent speeches, has not budged the negotiators thusfar.

Against this backdrop, climate activists continue to slog on, some heroically, pecking away at Leviathan. They stay busy, always alert to the next action, where they can convince themselves that they are good people, confirmed by comrades in the struggle. They stay busy and they stay hopeful, understanding that acrimonious criticism of the bad guys is not sufficient for the change we desperately need. Ignoring the think tanks and the policy community, they seize every claim of the alternative power industry that “we can do it all” with renewables, bypassing both coal and nuclear power.

What these activists ignore, however, is their own growing inner sense that all of this is too little, too late. If not too late for some form of human community, and thus intelligent life on this planet, certainly too late for many species, probably at least 20%, even if we stopped emissions in their tracks today. Intent on their honorable and heroic mission, they are too busy to mourn these losses. If they allowed themselves to care for individual creatures, rather than saving the earth as a whole, they might collapse in grief and despair.

Which is precisely what they need to allow in themselves - soon, before things get worse and that collapse becomes a terminal lack of heart and will to carry on the fight. As I have said before, going through the process of facing despair and working it through with a group under a trained leader leads to a sense of empowerment and hope. My mentor  Joanna Macy, now past eighty, continues to lead this work, as do an increasing number of her trainees, including myself. Periodically, ecowarriors need to step away from their extraverted mission and tend their wounds. Even if the wounds are not personal, we all carry the earth's pain during this time of extreme crisis. Untended, this pain can undermine the effectiveness of our work. Another fine approach to the crisis of ecological grief is Carolyn Baker, Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization's Collapse.

We are approaching the point of no return. The country is as disunited as it has ever been, with no bypartisan mandate for any kind of tough policy on carbon pollution. We are now one presidenccy away from Hansen's dire prediction. What will the work of activists look like at that point, as we enter the steep feedback loops of a terminal slide into climate catastrophe? Is it not time to create a hospice network for an entire species with major untended grief work? If we don't honor our dead and acknowledge our losses now, then we truly will throw up our hands in impotent despair when they cascade into a flood. As Joanna writes in her powerful poem, “The Bestiary,” Noah's ark is going in reverse as species steadily disappear forever. Like Noah, we need to work sensitively and systematically, treasuring their memory as we honor their passing. It is now a war of attrition, where we are those who besiege ourselves and the web that holds us. Life under a siege is grim, but possible. Once the walls are broken by the tsunami of climate change suspended like the sword of Damocles over our civilized castle, it will be very difficult to record, much less honor, our losses. Keep this in mind, tend this work, even as we labor for a last possible reprieve.

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