In Wake Up! Our World Is Dying and We're All in Denial, psychotherapist Mary Pipher shares her own experience coping with the depression and hopelessness which goes with facing up to climate change realities.

What pulled me out of my despair was the desire to get to work.

I felt unqualified for virtually everything involving the environment, but I knew I had to do something to help. It was unclear how much my action would benefit the world, but I knew it would help me.

Action has always been my healing tonic.

From this work, I've learned that saving the world and savoring it aren't polarities, but turn out to be deeply related.

George Orwell argued that pessimism is reactionary because it makes the very idea of improving the world impossible. I found that whether or not we believe we can change the world, even in a small way, acting as if we can is the healthiest emotional stance to take in the face of injustice and destruction.

We think something is wrong with us, but the problems are endemic and systemic. As a people, we've lost our grounding in deep time and in our place. At root, our problems are relationship problems. We have a disordered relationship with the web of life. Right now, the more we connect the dots between events, the more frightened we become.

Neither individuals nor cultures can keep up with the pace of change.

Our problem-solving abilities and our communication and coping skills haven't evolved quickly enough to sustain us.

On all levels--international, national, and personal--many situations now seem too complicated to be workable. A friend of mine put it this way: "There are no simple problems anymore."

In addition to the problems that we can describe and label, we have new problems that we can barely name. Writers are coining words to try to describe a new set of emotions. For example, Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastalgia to describe "homesickness or melancholia when your environment is changing all around you in ways that you feel are profoundly negative."

We experience our own pain, but also the pain of the earth and of people and animals suffering all over the world. Environmentalist Joanna Macy calls this pain "planetary anguish." We want to help, but we all feel that we have enough on our plates without taking on the melting polar ice caps or the dying oceans.

The climate crisis is so enormous in its implications that it's difficult for us to grasp its reality. Its scope exceeds our human and cultural resilience systems. Thinking about global climate collapse is like trying to count two billion pinto beans. Oftentimes, because we don't know how to respond, we don't respond. We develop "learned helplessness" and our sense that we're powerless becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. [emphasis mine]

In States of Denial, Stanley Cohen writes about Germany and the denial of the Holocaust. He talked about a state of knowing and not knowing that arises in ongoing traumatic situations. This "willful ignorance" occurs when information can't be totally denied, but can't be processed either. That's the state I think we're in now when we try to deal with global climate change.

We live in a culture of denial.

Even the manner in which we discuss climate change is odd. We don't talk about "believing in" the laws of aerodynamics, the DNA code, or faraway galaxies.

... what Renee Lertzman called "The Myth of Apathy." She interviewed people about global climate change and found that they actually care intensely about the environment, but that their emotions are so tangled up and they're so beset by internal conflicts that they can't act adaptively. They aren't apathetic, but rather shut down psychologically.

All cultures have rules about what can and can't be acknowledged.

Social and environmental studies professor Kari Norgaard writes, "The denial of global warming is socially constructed. In America it is almost as if relevant information about our climate crisis is classified. Our national policy towards the devastation we face is, 'Don't ask. Don't tell.'"

Once we face the hard truths about our environmental collapse, we can begin a process of transformation that I call the "alchemy of healing." Despair is often a crucible for growth. As we expand ourselves to deal with our new normal, we can feel more vibrant and engaged with the world as it is.

We can be intentional when we're shopping, planning a trip, or working in our communities. We can be citizens of the world, rather than consumers...

We're all community educators whether we know it or not. Everything we say and do is potentially a teachable moment for someone. So appoint yourself a change agent, engage in participatory democracy, and help yourself, your country, and your world. Belief often follows action. The harder we work, the likelier we are to experience hope and to improve our situation.

Amazement is another antidote to despair.

Transcendence can come from work, bliss, or an expanding moral imagination.

Dealing with our global crisis is essentially an ethics problem. If we don't expand our moral imaginations, we'll destroy ourselves. Healing will involve reweaving the most primal of connections to this sacred web.

At its core, interconnection is a survival strategy.

We're in a race between human consciousness and the physics and chemistry of the earth.

We can never know the significance of our individual actions, but we can act as if our actions are significant.

So let's save and savor the world together. [emphasis mine]

Tags: climate change, coping with climate change despair, moral imagination, planetray anguish, solastalgia, the myth of climate change apathy, willful ignorance

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Replies to This Discussion

We are not the first people to experience profound change in our world and we will not be the last. We don't have to look very far to see people faced with terrible situations and some could not cope and others were able to flourish.

Remember Japanese being sent to internment camps during WWII. They did nothing wrong, had committed no crimes, yet they were systematically rounded up and sent to live in forsaken camps. What strategies did those men and women use to cope? 

Or remember black slaves who were freed by declaration but not by education. They were turned loose as if they knew how to read and write and calculate, even as they had been denied those skills by laws. How did they survive and cope and flourish? 


Or remember the Irish who starved because of political food shortages, some died, some hung on as best they could and some migrated to countries around the world. They had no control over their famine, even if it was human-caused. How did they cope and thrive? 

Or remember the native peoples of the Americas who were overtaken by guns, germs and steel by ruthless colonizers, who stole their properties, worked them to death, and claimed their land without shame or guilt. How did those peoples survive and flourish?

Or the "witches" of Salem, accused by children, tried and convicted and hung or pressed by adults who claimed to be acting according to their religious beliefs. How did those families cope and overcome their stigma to regain their dignity and flourish? 

Or remember all the depressions and recessions that occurred over the years while falling under the rule of laissez-faire capitalism. How did laboring people, small business, people who work for wages survive and even flourish? 

So, we have climate change, despair, anguish, failing economies, destroyed businesses, loss of jobs and homes, lies, forgeries and theft by banks and financial institutions, peak oil, a failing government and all out of our control. How does one stay stable, calm, sane, and pro-active?  Well, the first thing to do is identify who owns the problems and who caused them. Stop denying what is real and end delusional thinking. Face reality, hang on by our finger-nails until the rough spot is passed, fight for justice, march, parade, strike, and do whatever is necessary to build institutions based on fair and democratic principles. Hold politicians and corporations and law enforcement and courts accountable, refuse to submit to laws and rules created by those with particular beliefs that have nothing to do with modern conditions, do not allow the religious right to dominate. Get god off our money and public buildings, and tax politically active churches. 


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