Collapse and the Stages of Grief
For many people, finding out about the inevitable collapse of civilization is like getting diagnosed with a terminal illness. It feels as though the wind has been knocked out of you, and all of your dreams and hopes for the future begin to evaporate as you realize you’ve been living in a fantasy world that never really existed.
This feeling is magnified by the fact that it is not just personal death staring us in the face, but the destruction of all that we hold dear in the world, and quite possibly the end of humanity itself. Obviously this knowledge is a terrible burden for anyone to bear, and it is no wonder that most people who realize what is happening eventually go through the grieving process, sometimes over and over again.
As one of the billions of people raised on visions of a techno-utopia just over the horizon, I know from personal experience that it is a devastating blow to find out that our odds of going extinct in the next few decades are much higher than our chances of leaving this planet to settle among the stars. That’s why I think it’s important to discuss some of the common reactions and stages of grief that people go through as they process this information. Below you’ll find a brief description of what to expect in each stage, as well as suggestions about how to process the accompanying emotions and talk to others who may be going through similar things.
The Stages of Grief
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross formalized the concept of the stages of grief, but obviously every individual will experience them in different ways and different orders, with some stages coexisting and blending into one another. It’s important to recognize that it is not usually possible to rush yourself or others through these stages or to force anyone to process information that they are not ready to think about. The best approach I have found is to encourage people to seek out coping mechanisms that help them deal with their fear and anxiety in order to achieve some measure of acceptance.
One of the most common initial reactions to learning about collapse and potential human extinction is flat-out denial that any of this could actually be happening. “Human beings are as tough and resilient as cockroaches,” people in this stage often argue, pointing to historical examples of humans living through climatic extremes and surviving in remote and inhospitable environments.
People in denial refuse to believe that the situation could possibly be as bad as it is, and may refuse to acknowledge that humans are responsible for their problems at all, blaming solar cycles and natural variations in the climate for any perceived changes. During this stage, no amount of evidence will be enough to change a person’s mind, and they will often simply dig their heels in harder when their beliefs are challenged, even by those with good intentions.
Some people on the lower end of the intelligence spectrum remain in perpetual denial, unable to accept that the bright future they believed in as children could ever be in doubt. Unfortunately, these people are highly susceptible to con men, grifters and snakeoil salesmen who are more than happy to lie to them in exchange for money and political power. (This is partly why collapse and extinction cannot be avoided, since it is impossible to convince enough people that our problems are real and that they should have been dealt with decades ago.) If possible, it is best to avoid these people entirely, as they are essentially overgrown children who are likely to lash out if their comfortable worldview is challenged.
Tips for Dealing with Denial
When I first heard someone say that humanity could go extinct this century my reaction was to laugh out loud and think, “What a bunch of bullshit!” I was firmly in denial and completely convinced that humans could survive any disaster nature might throw at us, even if civilization crumbled around us. I was studying for a master’s degree at the time and I had access to most of the relevant journals and primary data, so I began combing through virtual mountains of papers to reassure myself that the situation could not possibly be as bad as the near-term human extinction (NTHE) crowd was making it out to be.
This effort back-fired of course, because I quickly found out that the situation was much worse than I had been told. As the evidence piled up, it soon became clear to me that humanity will have to be very lucky indeed to make it to the end of this century. Finally, I could not sustain my denial any longer and I entered the bargaining stage as I began looking for any possible solution to our predicament.
For those who are working through denial themselves, the best advice I can offer is to continue challenging your own deeply-held beliefs, even when the process is painful and frustrating. Read articles and studies from a wide range of sources, especially ones you don’t agree with, and don’t be too quick to accept answers just because they reinforce what you want to believe. Once you become adept at checking sources and verifying claims, you’ll be able to tell pretty quickly whether an article is reporting legitimate data or simply spouting propaganda and hopium.
Dealing with others who are in the depths of denial is a different story, since you can’t force anyone to accept information they refuse to believe. The only strategy I can suggest is to disengage as much as possible and keep conversations to neutral and inoffensive topics like favorite foods and pop culture. Remember that nothing you can say will convince these people of anything, and that it is not your responsibility to change anyone’s mind. After all, denial is not based on logic, and it’s impossible to reason someone out of a position they haven’t reasoned themselves into.
For those who are too intelligent to remain in perpetual denial, the next stage is often bargaining. This usually begins after a person has absorbed so much information about global crises that they can no longer deny the problems exist, so they become desperate to find solutions no matter how impractical or unlikely they may be. Many individuals in the bargaining stage seek comfort in narratives that promise “pie in the sky” techno-fixes like geoengineering, off-world colonies, artificial intelligence or the so-called singularity.
After learning about the stages of grief, you may notice that most news coverage about climate change, pollution and other intractable problems falls into this category. There are countless examples of articles that provide in-depth accounts of how utterly fucked we are, only to end with a completely unrealistic conclusion that suggests all these problems could somehow be fixed “if we all just come together to raise awareness and start working on solutions immediately” or some such nonsense. This is a classic example of bargaining in action, and you can safely assume that nothing significant will change no matter how much awareness is raised.
People in the bargaining stage are also the main drivers of efforts like Transition Towns, the permaculture movement and other well-intentioned-but-ultimately-doomed-to-fail projects. Note that I’m not saying these efforts are wasted or not worth pursuing, just that they will never achieve their actual goals of transforming society or saving humanity from extinction. If you reach this stage and feel inspired to pursue a world-saving project, by all means go right ahead and try, since your inevitable failure will help you progress to the next stage: Anger
Tips for Dealing with Bargaining
If you happen to find yourself in the bargaining stage searching for some way to prevent collapse and extinction, I suggest you join a few local activism groups (or for even faster burn-out, try to start a new one of your own). It doesn’t really matter what projects these groups are working on, because the point is to go through enough multi-hour consensus meetings, cold-weather marches and pointless protests to convince yourself that these efforts are cosmetic at best and that they can never really address the root causes of the problems they are trying to solve.
Pseudo-magical techno-solutions like geoengineering can also seem very appealing during this stage since they don’t rely so much on getting people to work together, but keep in mind that they will almost certainly introduce a whole new set of problems of their own. After all, the techno-fixes currently being proposed are intended to clean up the problems and side-effects caused by previous generations of techno-fixes, which people also thought would solve their problems.
It can be very frustrating to speak with people in the depths of the bargaining stage, because they are usually convinced that the world can be saved “if only (insert impossible condition here)”. No amount of logic or evidence will alter their opinion at this point, so it’s best to just smile and nod and say shit like, “I really hope that works out!” or “That sounds like a great idea if you can get people on board!” Sooner or later it will become clear to them that even if they could fix the main problem they’re working on, there are dozens of other issues that are equally serious and even more difficult to solve. Eventually, most people will burn out and give up of their own accord, saving you the trouble of having to burst their bubble.
For many people emerging from the bargaining stage, anger is a common response. Those who have been working hard trying to save the world often end up angry at the world and everyone in it for refusing to allow themselves to be saved. Once it becomes clear that our global problems are actually predicaments that do not have practical solutions, many people throw up their hands in anger and lash out at anyone who will listen. Sadly, this often results in alienating the few friends and loved ones left in their social circles.
To make matters worse, anger without a tangible target is often turned inward, and people sometimes begin to hate themselves along with everyone else. Living in a monstrous social system eventually turns people into monsters, and it is easy to fall into the trap of self-loathing since we are all forced to participate in this death-cult of a culture to some degree.
Self-destructive behaviors often manifest during this stage as people turn to alcohol, drugs, sex, food or any other avenue of escape to avoid thinking about the problems that drove them to this point. This can go on for months or years in some cases, but eventually most people run out of the emotional energy needed to sustain anger and they just sort of slide down into depression.
Tips for Dealing with Anger
It is perfectly natural to be angry that our planet is being destroyed, but holding on to that anger is like clutching a burning coal: You may intend to hurt someone else with it, but mostly you’re just hurting yourself. Even channeling that anger to go full-on ecovigilante and take out the CEOs of oil companies and other big polluters wouldn’t do anything to change the course we are on because plenty of others would gladly step up to take their places and continue the cycle of destruction. The problems we face are systemic and deeply-ingrained, and they go far beyond any individual or corporation.
Since there is no healthy place to focus this anger, it’s important to find ways to express it that don’t alienate friends and loved ones or cause damage to ourselves or others. Channeling anger into creative projects is one option, and a healthy dose of rage and frustration can generate powerful art, music and writing. It can also be helpful to participate in physical activities to help burn off some of the energy behind the anger. Things like blacksmithing, woodworking, mechanical repair and similar activities offer both distraction from and an outlet for pent-up aggression. Eventually, anger will run its course just like the emotions that surfaced in other stages, and most people will move past it at some point to reach some form of acceptance.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do for others who are processing their anger beyond listening and sympathizing. You cannot fix the root causes of their frustration, but you can share some of the burden and let them know they are not alone in feeling upset at the state of the world. Often that’s enough to get someone through the day.
At some point in the grieving process, almost everyone goes through an extended period of depression in which it feels as though there is no point in going on living. All of the insurmountable problems facing us begin (or continue) to feel overwhelming, and the simple pleasures of life no longer hold much comfort. People in this phase generally lose interest in the projects that previously seemed important to them, and they may withdraw from social circles and customary activities. This leads to increasing isolation and feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt, which can quickly spiral out of control if left unchecked.
During this stage social support networks and close personal relationships are especially important, but many people discover that those closest to them cannot stand to think about the realities that are driving the grieving process. American culture is exceptionally bad at allowing people to grieve in this way since depression is seen as a sign of mental weakness, so it requires extra effort to find outlets for this emotion that don’t result in lectures about “looking on the bright side” or “the power of positive thinking.”
This is a dangerous stage for many people because the traditional sources of meaning (like close-knit communities and shared cultural experiences) are no longer available to most of us, and it can be extremely tempting to consider self-harm and even suicide when things become especially bleak. Readers dealing with these feelings need to know that they are not alone, and that there are others who see and feel the same things they do. None of us can solve these problems, but we can bear witness to them together and share some of the pain of watching our only planet being destroyed.
Tips for Dealing with Depression
While anti-depressant drugs are available as a last resort, I encourage people to seek out other avenues of treatment first since the side effects of mood-altering medication can be almost as damaging as the symptoms they are meant to treat. If there are parks, forests or beaches near you, spending time in nature can offer some solace, and getting good nutrition and exercise are proven to help improve mood.
Participating in online discussion boards (like the collapse forum on Reddit) can also provide some perspective and a sense of community for those who have no one else to talk to about these topics. Sometimes just knowing that others see the same things you do and are dealing with similar problems helps to alleviate some of the pain that comes with knowledge of collapse. On the other hand, if you find yourself struggling with depression after spending too much time reading and thinking about the problems of the world, it can also be helpful to disengage from reality for a while by reading fiction, watching movies, playing games and listening to music.
Obviously, there are no cure-all approaches to dealing with this stage in yourself or others. Often it just takes time (sometimes months or years worth of time) to get through a serious bout of depression, and there is little that can be done to speed things along. It helps to keep in mind that depression is a natural and normal reaction to finding out that your species is going extinct, and it would actually be much worse not to feel sad that so much beauty is being lost. As long as you feel depressed, at least you know that you can still feel something, which is a crucial part of holding on to your humanity.
During previous stages it can seem as though you will never be able to cope with the crushing despair and sense of loss that comes with knowledge of collapse and extinction, but if you manage to keep on living despite the sadness you might be surprised to find out how resilient and flexible your mind can be. Eventually, after months or years of cycling between the other stages, you will find that you can begin to accept the inevitable, and that fear of loss and death no longer hold the same power over you that they once did.
You will still see all the same problems and recognize that nothing has fundamentally changed, but instead of obsessing over ways to fix unfixable problems or being angry and depressed by the unfairness of it all, you will begin to see some comedy mixed in with the tragedy. It helps me to think of our situation as the premise for a movie. Just imagine: a world full of dressed up apes pretending to be technological geniuses who are going to conquer the galaxy, all while actively destroying their whole planet in exchange for shiny gadgets, shitty processed food and mindnumbing entertainment. Hell, it could be a sequel (technically a prequel) to Mike Judge’s classic film Idiocracy (which you should definitely see if you haven’t already).
Paradoxically, a big part of reaching acceptance is losing hope as well as fear. It sounds strange to say it, but hope is just as dangerous and deceptive as denial. As long as we hold on to hope for the future, we are susceptible to being dragged right back into the grieving process when it turns out that our hopes were misplaced or unrealistic. Only by letting go of false hopes that we will somehow be saved, by accepting that there is no way out of this situation, can we cease grieving and just begin living again, this time in full awareness that our time here will soon come to an end.
Tips for Maintaining Acceptance
Personally, maintaining an awareness of how transitory and temporary our lives are helps more than anything else to remind me to appreciate every day and be grateful for what I have instead of feeling cheated out of an imagined future. As the saying goes, “Don’t be sad that it’s over, be glad that it happened.”
It is an amazing gift to be alive, even in the face of suffering and imminent death. We cannot choose the circumstances of our births or the general trajectory of our lives, but we can choose how we respond to external events and how we understand the world and ourselves. My father liked to say that what happens to us is only 10 percent of experience. The other 90 percent is our reaction to what happens.
Part of remaining in acceptance is developing a different way of thinking about the world, and gaining a broader perspective on the patterns of creation and destruction that drive the cycles of our universe. In this reality, all beings must eventually die and all that exists will someday be destroyed, but along the way we have the opportunity to experience beautiful and amazing things. As Homer wrote in the Iliad:
The gods envy us. They envy us because we are mortal, because any moment may be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we are doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.
Bonus Stage: Black Humor
After you’ve bounced between the usual stages of grief for a while and have come to some acceptance of the situation, you may find that even the most awful and outrageous things about our predicament begin to seem a little bit funny. Much like characters in the classic tragicomedies of the Greeks and Romans, our situation is patently absurd and hopeless, but there is still humor to be found in sharing the experience.
In tragicomic stories, gods and kings often act like fools or spoiled children, while slaves, peasants and humble folk embody nobility and wisdom. The point is to demonstrate that laughter is the only sane response in the face of impossible and ridiculous situations. Laughing at the horrors of the world may seem like a crazy and antisocial response to those who are still deeply caught up in mourning for all that will be lost, but the intention is not to dismiss or downplay the suffering of others, it is to recognize our shared experiences and appreciate the irony of being born as conscious beings in a universe that is at best indifferent to us, and at worst seems to be actively trying to kill us in strange and creative ways.
People who have reached this stage may enjoy the works of writers who share a cynical-yet-comical understanding of the universe, including Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and Douglas Adams. Adams is especially adept at capturing the feeling of being cast unprepared into a bizarre and nonsensical universe, and if you haven’t already read everything he’s written, do yourself a favor and get started right now while there’s still time. (I recommend starting with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but you really can’t go wrong with anything he wrote. Other great works include Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and Last Chance to See.) Here’s a little taste of his style for those who are unfamiliar:
The story so far:
In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move. …
There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened. …
[O]n the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons.