Is Climate Denial a Form of Grieving?

By David L. Brown

Note: The following is excerpted from a new book I’ve just completed writing. It makes interesting food for thought about the phenomenon of denial.

It may seem hard to understand how so many people can remain in denial about the threats that face us. It probably comes down to psychology, and the natural tendency of individuals to protect themselves from unpleasant facts. Some writers[1] have suggested that refusal to accept the very real possibility our technological civilization is in danger of collapse is due to a process similar to the stages of grief described by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.[2] Denial is the first stage in her description of the process of grieving, followed in order by anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.

We can see that gaining a state of acceptance is not an easy transformation, and who can imagine a greater cause for grief than to mourn our very planet and the injuries humanity has done to Nature?

If Kübler-Ross’s ideas apply to how individuals react to the present state of civilization, those in denial have several stages to go. Others are more advanced. You might profit from deciding where you fit on the scale of “grieving” over the impending changes in our world.

In the stage of denial, the most hard-core resisters often claim the danger of resource depletion is vastly over-stated, that those of us who sound the alarm are nothing but Chicken Littles, conspiracy theorists, or loonies. Their heads are firmly in the sand.

Those in the second stage of anger are looking for someone to blame. Obvious targets (and not without reason) are Big Oil, power companies, foreign countries such as Saudi Arabia or China, globalization, or those ever-popular scapegoats politicians. These might be people you would see waving signs on picket lines.

Those who have reached the stage of bargaining might pin their hopes on an almost cult-like confidence that new technologies will allow us to find and use more resources. Bargainers are always seeking “solutions,” such as escape to space or some unexpected discovery that will make everything safe again, so that “progress” can continue unhindered.

I know many people who tell me they don’t want to think about this subject because it’s depressing. They are in the fourth stage of the process.

I rank myself in the stage of acceptance, and it’s only when that point is reached that one can see clearly enough to apply the powers of reason and analysis to the challenges that face humanity. Rather than being depressed by the study of this subject, I find it of intense interest — although it’s discouraging to see how many are still in the earlier stages of “grief,” particularly that counter-productive state of denial.


[1] For example, Richard Heinberg in his book “Peak Everything,” New Society Publishers, 2007.

[2] Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, “On Death and Dying,” 1st pb. edition, 1970.

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