Mourning Our Planet

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by Dahr Jamail

Longer version originally published in TruthOut, January 25, 2015.

I have been researching and writing about anthropogenic climate disru2014_0316dcddption for the past year, because I have long been deeply troubled by how fast the planet has been emitting its obvious distress signals.

I’ve sought out the most recent scientific studies, interviewed the top researchers and scientists penning those studies, and connected the dots to give readers as clear a picture as possible about the magnitude of the emergency we are in.

This work has emotional consequences: I’ve struggled with depression, anger, and fear. I’ve watched myself shift through some of the five stages of grief proposed by Elisa
beth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

I’ve grieved for the planet and all the species who live here, and continue to do so as I work today.  I have been vacillating between depression and acceptance of where we are, both as victims—fragile human beings—and as perpetrators: We are the species responsible for altering the climate system of the planet we inhabit to the point of possibly driving ourselves extinct, in addition to the 150 to 200 species we are already driving extinct daily.

Can you relate to this grieving process?

If so, you might find solace in the fact that you are not alone: Climate science researchers, scientists, journalists and activists have all been struggling with grief around what we are witnessing.

Take Professor Camille Parmesan, a climate researcher who says that climate disruption is the driving cause of her depression.

“I don’t know of a single scientist that’s not having an emotional reaction to what is being lost,” Parmesan said. “It’s gotten to be so depressing that I’m not sure I’m going to go back to this particular site again,” she said in reference to an ocean reef she had studied since 2002, “because I just know I’m going to see more and more of the coral dead, and bleached, and covered with brown algae.”

In order to remain able to continue in our work, we first must feel the full pain of what is being done to the world, according to Joanna Macy. “Refusing to feel pain, and becoming incapable of feeling the pain, which is actually the root meaning of apathy, refusal to suffer–that makes us stupid, and half alive,” she told me. “It causes us to become blind to see what is really out there.”

I recently came across a blog titled, “Is This How You Feel?” It is an extraordinary compilation of handwritten letters from highly credentialed climate scientists and researchers sharing their myriad feelings about what they are seeing.

The blog is run and operated by Joe Duggan, a science communicator, who described his project like this: “All the scientists that have penned letters for this site have a sound understanding of climate change. Some have spent years designing models to predict changing climate, others, years investigating the implications for animal life. More still have been exploring a range of other topics concerning the causes and implications of a changing climate. As a minimum, they’ve all achieved a PhD in their area of expertise.”

With Joe’s permission, I share passages from the site in the spirit of opening the door to a continuing dialog about our collective situation.

Frustration

“Like many others I feel frustrated with the current state of public discourse and I’m dismayed by those who, seemingly motivated by their own short-term self interest, have chosen to hijack that discussion,” wrote Dr. John Fasullo, a project scientist in the climate analysis section of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, on the “Is This How You Feel?” blog.

Professor Peter B. deMenocal with Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory shared an analogy to the climate scientist’s predicament, comparing it to how a medical doctor would feel while having to inform their patient, who is an old, lifelong friend, of a dire but treatable diagnosis. The friend goes on to angrily disregard what you have to say, for a variety of very human reasons, as you watch helplessly as their pain and illness unfold over the rest of their now-shortened life. “Returning to our patient, I feel frustrated that my friend won’t listen,” he concluded.

Dr. Helen McGregor, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Earth Sciences, shared a very emotionally honest letter about her experience as a climate scientist.

I feel like nobody’s listening. Ok, sure, some people are listening but not enough of our leaders are listening—those that make decisions that influence all our lives. And climate change is affecting and will continue to affect all our lives.

“I feel perplexed at why many of our politicians, business leaders, and members of the public don’t get that [climate disruption] is a problem. …[S]ure, there have been warm periods in the past and the Earth weathered the storm (excuse the pun) but back then there weren’t millions of people, immovable infrastructure, or entire communities in harm’s way.

“I feel astonished that some would accuse me of being part of some global conspiracy to get more money—if I was in it for the money I would have stayed working as a geologist in the mining industry.

I feel both exasperation and despair in equal measure, that perhaps there really is nothing I can do. I feel vulnerable, that perhaps by writing this letter I expose myself to trolling and vitriol—perhaps I’m better off just keeping quiet.”

Hope

Dr. Jennie Mallela with the Research Schools of Biology and Earth Sciences at the Australian National University shared a range of emotions, including optimism.

“I believe people are capable of amazing things and I do believe that climate change can be halted and even reversed,” she wrote. “I just hope it happens in my lifetime. I don’t want to become the generation that future children talk of as having destroyed the planet. I’d like to be the generation that fought back (and won) against human induced climate change. The generation that worked out how to live in harmony with the planet—that generation!”

She wasn’t alone.

“So whilst there are enough good and committed people we can change our path of warming,” wrote Dr. Jim Salinger, an honorary research associate in climate science with the University of Auckland’s School of Environment. However, he went on to add, “I am always hopeful—but 4 to 5 degrees Celsius of change will be a challenge to survive.”

I asked Dr. Ira Lefier, an Atmospheric/Oceanic Scientist whose research has focused on methane how he felt about our current situation. He expressed his concerns and frustration, but also optimism.

“I find it highly distressing that we are having a societal discussion on whether to take climate change seriously, half a century late. Still, I refuse not to be an optimist—it is not yet too late. I continue to do whatever I can both scientifically and by communicating with the public, firstly, because it is the right thing to do, and secondly, in the hope and belief that even now, positive action will reduce the damage from a warming climate to the ecosystem. I refuse to accept ‘apres moi le deluge’ [after me comes the flood].”

Concern

“As a human-being, and especially as a parent, I feel concerned that we are doing damage to the planet,” wrote Professor Peter Cox, of the University of Exeter, on the blog. “I don’t want to leave a mess for my children, or anyone else’s children, to clear-up.””

Dr. Sarah Perkins, a climate scientist and extreme events specialist with the University of New South Wales, shared both her concern and hope about our Earth.

“For some time now I’ve been terribly worried. I wish I didn’t have to acknowledge it, but everything I have feared is happening. I used to think I was paranoid, but it’s true. She’s slipping away from us. She’s been showing signs of acute illness for quite a while, but no one has really done anything. Her increased erratic behavior is something I’ve especially noticed…. I’ve tried to highlight these changes time and time again, as well as their speed of increase, but no one has paid attention.

“It almost seems everyone has been ignoring me completely, and I’m not sure why.

… How can you ignore the severe sickness of someone you are so intricately connected to and dependent upon? How can you let your selfishness and greed take control, and not protect and nurture those who need it most? How can anyone not feel an overwhelming sense of care and responsibility when those so dear to us are so desperately ill? … This is something I will never understand. Perhaps I’m the odd one out…. The one who cares enough, who has the compassion, to want to help make her better.

“The thing is we can make her better!! If we work together, we can cure this terrible illness and restore her to her old self before we exploited her. But we must act quickly, we must act together. Time is ticking, and we need to act now.

Sharing both his frustration and concern, Dr. Alex Sen Gupta with the Climate Change Research Center at the University of New South Wales wrote:

“I feel frustrated. … I feel concerned that … our inaction will cause terrible suffering to those least able to cope with change and that within my lifetime many of the places that make this planet so special—the snows on Kilimanjaro, the Great Barrier Reef, even the ice-covered Arctic will be degraded beyond recognition—our legacy to the next generation.”

Anger

My overwhelming emotion is anger; anger that is fueled not so much by ignorance, but by greed and profiteering at the expense of future generations,” wrote Professor Corety Bradshaw, the director of ecological modeling at the University of Adelaide. “I am not referring to some vague, existential bonding to the future human race; rather, I am speaking as a father of a seven year-old girl who loves animals and nature in general.

“I am furious that politicians … are stealing the future from my daughter, and laughing about it while they line their pockets with the figurative gold proffered by the fossil-fuel industry. Whether it is sheer stupidity, greed, deliberate dishonesty or all three, the outcome is the same—destruction of the environmental life-support system…..

“My frustration with these greedy, lying bastards is personal. Human-caused climate disruption is not a belief – it is one of the best-studied phenomena on Earth. …As any father would, anyone threatening my family will be on the receiving end of my ire and vengeance. This anger is the manifestation of my deep love for my daughter, and the sadness I feel in my core about how others are treating her future.

“Mark my words, you plutocrats, denialists, fossil-fuel hacks and science charlatans – your time will come when you will be backed against the wall by the full wrath of billions who have suffered from your greed and stupidity, and I’ll be first in line to put you there.”

“The Pivotal Psychological Reality of Our Time”

Joe told me the response to his project has been, in general, positive.

“I have received emails from all over the world from people of all walks of life thanking me for establishing the website—from retired grandmothers through to undergraduate university students,” he said.

He was happy to add that the responses from scientists have been positive, and said his question of “How does climate change make you feel?” is “something they have not been asked before.”

“Of course there have been some very vocal opponents to my work,” Joe added. “This is to be expected…. [“Is This How You Feel?”] does not exist to change the minds of deniers. It exists to provide an avenue through which everyday people can relate to climate change.”

The term “climate change deniers,” then, has an entirely new…meaning when viewed through the lenses of the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief, given that “denial” is literally one of the five stages.

The practice of scientists sharing their feelings runs contrary to the dominant consumer capitalist culture of the West, which guards against—and attempts to divert attention from—the prospect of people getting in touch with feelings provoked by witnessing the wholesale destruction of the planet.

In fact, Macy believes it is not in the self-perceived interest of multinational corporations, or the government and the media that serve them “for us to stop and become aware of our profound anguish with the way things are.”

Nevertheless, these disturbing trends of widespread denial, disinformation by the corporate media, and the worsening impacts of runaway climate disruption, which are all increasing, are something she is very mindful of. As she wrote in World as Lover, World as Self, “The loss of certainty that there will be a future is, I believe, the pivotal psychological reality of our time.”

We don’t know how long we have left on earth. Five years? 15 years? 30? Beyond the year 2100? But when we allow our hearts to be shattered—broken completely open—by these stark, cold realities, we allow our perspectives to be opened up to vistas we’ve never known. When we allow ourselves to fully experience the crisis in this way, we are then able to truly see it through new eyes.

Like reaching new heights on a mountain, we can see things we’ve never seen before. Our thinking, attitudes, and outlook on life changes dramatically. It is a new consciousness, one in which we realize the pivotal stage in history we find ourselves in.

Perhaps, within this new consciousness, we can live in this time with grace, dignity, and caring. Perhaps, here, we can find ways to save habitat for a few more species, while we share our precious lives and this precious time with loved ones, in the wild places we love so much, on this rare and precious world.

Ed. note: Since this was published, Jamail has published readers responses with their own feelings about climate change at http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/37740-our-changing-world-readers-share-their-climate-stories.

Dahr Jamail is an investigative journalist who has reported from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. He is now focusing on anthropogenic climate disruption and the environment. He has studied and consulted with Joanna Macy.  

Dahr’s stories have been published with Truthout, Inter Press Service, Tom Dispatch, The Guardian, Le Monde, Le Monde Diplomatique, The Huffington Post, The Nation, and The Independent, among others. He has reported for Democracy Now! and Al-Jazeera, and has appeared on the BBC, NPR, among other stations.  He has received numerous awards, including the 2008 Martha Gellhorn Award for Journalism, The Lannan Foundation Writing Residency Fellowship, the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, the Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage, and five Project Censored awards.

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