When we think about a potential future that is very different to our present day, or from the future dreams we may have once had, it can be difficult to cope with the feelings of fear, loss and grief that can arise.
It can be tempting to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the problem, or (in the case of global warming) pretend that simply switching to low energy light bulbs will be enough to solve the problem.
Many people experience similar feelings when facing a loss or painful change. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross formulated her theory of the 5 stages of grief by observing what happens when people experience a loss. These stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
The stages describe the process by which people cope with grief, loss or tragedy. Although people may follow the stages in order it is also common for people to experience only a couple of the stages, or in a different order to the one listed. It is almost certain that we will all experience some of the feelings and reactions listed below as we face up to the loss of our current way of life. We might also feel differently about different areas of our lives at the same time, perhaps anger about one facet, and acceptance about another.
The stages of grief
- Denial – “It’s not happening”
Denial is a perfectly normal response to situations that are threatening, especially if it challenges our self image. A kind and loving father, who genuinely cares about his children’s future might deny the evidence of climate change in order to not feel guilty or scared about the possible implications for his children’s future happiness and prosperity. It might be easier for him to convince himself it’s all a conspiracy or a mistake than to face the difficult truth.
It’s important to accept that denial is natural, and to show compassion to those who seem to be in this stage. We will all experience our own denial in one form or another. Trying to force someone to see ‘the truth’ is likely to be counterproductive; if they feel threatened they are more likely to stay in denial.
- Anger – “Why me? It’s not fair!” “Who is to blame?”
Faced with a crisis, it is very easy to feel angry and search for someone or something to blame, and lash out towards.
Anger can be destructive and counterproductive, especially if that anger is directed towards a scapegoat. In the years to come, as more people wake up to the reality of what we face we will need to be vigilant towards people who might try to stoke up rising anger for their own agenda. The British National Party is already talking about peak oil as an opportunity to push forward its own views on immigration.
It’s important to remember however that anger can also be a very useful and energetic emotion, one that makes us act and do something about the threats the world faces. We can use the energy it provides to help us act in positive ways that reduce our oil dependency.
- Bargaining – “Everything will be okay if I change my light bulbs and install a solar panel” “If I offset my emissions I can still fly”
This might involve offering up small or large sacrifices in order to delay the coming bigger changes. Perhaps the bargaining might involve useful actions like getting solar panels, buying a more efficient car, or not using plastic bags. It’s a way of saying I know my life will change, but if I do this, perhaps it won’t need to change so much, I can carry on much as before or delay the big changes.
For many it will involve negotiating with a higher power, praying that things will be okay, “If I’m good and virtuous can I have more time?”
- Depression – “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “It’s all going to end… What’s the point?”; “Why go on?”
During this stage we begin to understand the certainty of change and face up to the reality of what that might mean. Because of this, we may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up someone who is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving what has been, or will be lost.
- Acceptance – “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”
In this last stage we can accept that a change has happened or is inevitable, and rather than try and fight it or postpone that change we can prepare ourselves for that change. Once we can accept the reality of declining energy use then we can fully involve ourselves and others in the challenges of facing that reality.
Where are you?
Can you place yourself in the five stages with regards to climate change or peak oil? If you can, which stage best sums up how you feel?
How to help ourselves and others cope with these thoughts and feelings
The most important thing to remember is that each of these stages is a normal reaction and that many other people are probably feeling the same way as you. Try not to see getting through the stages as being something to rush. One stage is no ‘better’ than the previous one.
Talking through how you feel with someone who you can trust can be a valuable way of coping, and providing an accepting and empathic listening ear to someone else in distress is a great way to help others. Seeing a counsellor may also help, as they can provide a trained and impartial ear to your concerns.
With the widespread denial and lack of awareness in the general population it can be hard to find people who want to listen to your fears about the future. This is why joining groups such as a transition town can be useful. We’re all going through similar things, and talking to a like minded individual or group can be a fantastic way to stop yourself feeling like you’re the only one who feels this way, or that you’re going mad!
As the British Telecom adverts from a few years ago stated “It’s good to talk.”
Going through any change can be stressful, and we all have our own ways of coping with stress. The first step is learning to recognise when your batteries need recharging, and then taking time to actually do it in our busy lives. Try and take the time to relax yourself, maybe reading a book, perhaps a walk in the country, listening to music or playing a sport. Do whatever works for you to recharge your mental and physical batteries.
It’s unlikely that anyone can spend the whole time worrying about the future without eventually being affected by stress. We need to keep on making time for fun, play and for loved ones.
Lastly, it can be easy at times to focus on scary fantasies of the future, whilst forgetting that there are many positive outcomes of a future less dependent on fossil fuels. Stopping climate change is just one. Try to take some time to think about some positive aspects, rather than thinking about what you don’t want to happen, think about what you do want to happen, and then perhaps how it might be possible for you to help achieve that.
For example, maybe you’d like to see more people cycling to your place of work. How can you achieve that? What practical steps can be taken now? Who knows, maybe in a few months time you’ll be chatting to colleagues, not next to the coffee machine in the morning, but next to the brand new bike rack that you helped create.
All over the country and the world people just like you are creating visions of a world they want to see, and then taking practical, positive steps, some small and some huge, towards making that future happen.
The future is unknown, uncertain and full of change. Faced with that fearful uncertainty it’s natural at times to feel overwhelmed. Remember you are not alone, thousands all over the world are facing that future with you, and fighting to make it a positive one.