5 Stages on how to personally deal with global changes.

Dealing with all the changes in the world is not easy. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s Change Model helps you understand what emotional changes you go through when dealing with global issues.

Have you ever felt on of the following things?
– Confused when hearing news about the climate crisis.
– Sad and angry when reading about poverty and the inequality in the world.
– A sense of loss, melancholy or helpless in response to changes in the environment.
– Hopeless about the future of the planet and the ecological system.
– Scared about the future of your children and your family.

If any of this sounds familiar, you have a taste of what grief feels like. They all represent a loss (or anticipated loss) of something we value in our local or global environment. Climate grief can be about an environmental change on the physical level, but it can also be about loss of knowledge, culture, and identity as they relate to a particular place – or to the state of the planet as a whole. When we feel grief in response to the impacts and anticipated impacts of climate disruption – including feelings of despair, anger, fear, guilt, sadness, yearning, disorganisation, and other emotions – we call this climate grief (1). 

Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Change Model

One of the best-known models is that derived from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s work (2) on death and dying. Kubler-Ross worked with the terminally ill in the 1960s in a period, where the truth of the diagnosis was frequently kept from the patient. She proposed a five-stage model describing the process that people who have received a terminal diagnosis typically go through in adjusting to the reality and proximity of death (3). 

Nobel Peace Prize winner Steve W. Running (4) recommended that these stages of grief provide a very good analogy to how people are now reacting to the global warming topic, so he formulated the 5 Stages of Climate Grief.

1 – Shock & Denial

The first reaction is denial. In this stage, you believe the diagnosis is somehow mistaken, and you cling to a false, preferable reality. You simply refuse to accept the message of cancer: “I feel fine,” “This cannot be happening, not to me.” This is the same kind of self-protective defence we mount against the climate message (5). “The scientist cannot be right” or “Humans cannot be the cause  of this.” “This stage can also explain the experience that you believe the science but that you ignore the potential consequences and the need for action(1)”.

2 – Anger

When you recognise that denial cannot continue, you can become frustrated. “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; “Who is to blame?”; “Why would this happen?” (2). In the context of climate, anger can manifest as rage towards climate activists. For those already convinced of the need for urgency, anger may be directed at the status quo, “the people that got us into this mess,” or even at ourselves. Anger, and related feelings like frustration and rage, are sometimes referred to as “secondary emotions” because they tend to cover up other, more vulnerable emotions, such as sadness, hopelessness, and confusion. There is nothing inherently wrong with anger. Anger is a natural, healthy emotion. It is an appropriate response to many genuinely infuriating situations in the world – the climate crisis being one of them! At its most basic, anger can be a catalyst for action (1). 

3 – Bargaining

The third stage involves the hope that the individual can avoid a cause of grief. People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek compromise (5 – Wiki). We try to modify, mollify, sweeten, gloss over, or insure against the coming death, divorce or calamity. Bargaining, in terms of climate change, may mean that we simply find ways to adapt; “A little warming can’t be that bad!” or “Well, I’ll buy and extra air-conditioner before next summer. (5)” We seek to downplay the potential impacts of climate change, or even focus on potential positive outcomes, such as “better weather”. We may rest our hopes in technological fixes ) to avoid facing the realisation that there is no simple fix, and that climate change will require us to drastically change our consumption patterns and way of life. The key component of this reaction is the attempt to feel better, to avoid facing the loss, by wishful thinking and efforts to compensate with tokens. (1).

4 – Depression and despair

Fourth comes depression and despair. I’m so miserable, why bother with anything? Whatever I do has no effect (5).  This stage kicks in when we accept the reality of climate disruption, and its frightening consequences, but we feel helplessness or hopelessness about any chance of dealing with it. This hopelessness can be on the level of the individual: “The problem is too big – what can I do about it?” Or on the species-level: “Humans are selfish and will never change. We’re doomed.” On the level of feelings, climate depression can manifests as a lack of energy, motivation, or involvement in activities (1). It is usually futile to attempt to cheer up someone in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed (5). 

5 – Acceptance

“It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it; I may as well prepare for it.” In this last stage, we embrace mortality or inevitable future, or that of our loved one, or other tragic event. People dying may precede the survivors in this state, which typically comes with a calm, retrospective view for the individual, and a stable condition of emotions. (2) When applying acceptance to climate grief, we can best understand this stage, as a form of healthy, active acceptance of the facts and our complex feelings and at the same time remaining functional and engaged in the world. In this way, we have the chance to make things better (1).

Conclusion

Grief is rarely so linear or predictable. Indeed, the Kubler-Ross model has received significant critique over the years, particularly around the validity of its step-by-step process, and whether the stages can be measurably observed. Given this proviso, let’s consider the “five stages” in the context of climate change, not as a step-wise process from beginning to end, but as a set of five possible reactions for us to deal with climate change (1). 

We live at a moment of great import for our planet, and each of us has an opportunity to engage our particular skills and capacities in a way that serves something bigger than ourselves – bigger even than our species. In other words, we have the choice to serve a special purpose – the support of life on Earth, and the alignment of humans with the rest of the natural world. To achieve this, we will need love, connection, and collaboration (1).

And we will need to give ourselves a chance to grieve. It is not clear if we will succeed; there is no knowing what the future holds. But being human has always involved persisting through danger and uncertainty. By embracing our love for nature and for humanity, even in the face of great loss and pain, our grief can inspire us and empower us (1). 


Further Reads & Sources

1 – What is Climate Grief – Mind & Climate 

2 – Five Stages of Grief – Kübler-Ross Model 

3 – Randall “Loss and Climate Change” Running “Five Stages of Climate Grief” 

4 – Stages of Climate Grief – Dr Steve Running 

5 – What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming – Epson Stoknes