Climate change, with its predictable consequences, appears irreversible. Can coming to terms with a terminal diagnosis help us to deal with the situation?
Mayer Hillman is an eminent social scientist and senior fellow emeritus of the Policy Studies Institute, now in his eighties. He has delivered an unambiguous verdict on the state of the planet we live in total interdependency with:
We’re doomed. The outcome is death, and it’s the end of most life on the planet because we’re so dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. There are no means of reversing the process which is melting the polar ice caps.
Mayer considers that even the action of individual nations is futile. The whole planet would have to go zero carbon immediately, and even then it appears that the process is irreversible. The short-sightedness of scientific bodies such as The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tending to predict as far ahead as 2100, and no further, appears to be based on nothing but an unwillingness to look. There are obviously many unpredictable factors so far ahead, but it hardly matters if we are held to account by people in the future for our overly-optimistic predictions. On the other hand, pessimistic ones might be extremely useful. At some point there will have to be a tipping point at which more people are willing to realise what is happening than not.
At the heart of people’s refusal to tackle the reality of the rises in temperature and their measurable consequences is the habit of separating out our personal, individual lives from the systems we arise out of and are inextricably embedded in. We all seem to sense that individual action is ultimately futile. Yet at the same time, what else can we do? To add to the human confusion, ‘environmental’ issues are still seen by many as the domain of certain cultural groups. The social aspects of being a vegan cyclist can loom larger and seem more significant in our individual life lens than the larger, objective/collective facts of the matter.
“With doom ahead, making a case for cycling as the primary mode of transport is almost irrelevant,” says Mayer. “We’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels. So many aspects of life depend on fossil fuels, except for music and love and education and happiness. These things, which hardly use fossil fuels, are what we must focus on.”
It’s easier to focus on music and happiness when you aren’t being forced out of your home by war, drought, or flood. People are already moving towards the north, the regions which are likely to remain relatively unscathed by climate change for the longest. They are not exactly being welcomed. This trend is likely to intensify. On the other hand, love becomes a practical necessity, not a luxury. The bonds which drive people to help each other and the sense of hope engendered by loving and being loved are what enables people to survive.
In order to change the way in which those in need — and it will soon be all of us — are treated, there needs to be a resurgence of empathy. The way I see it, although this is less measurable than climate change, empathy is enhanced by music, love, good education and happiness. The goods which depend on fossil fuels are those which consumerist capitalism rampantly produces — on an unnaturally endless course of expansion, with no ethical base built in to check it.
As Mayer puts it, “Standing in the way is capitalism. Can you imagine the global airline industry being dismantled when hundreds of new runways are being built right now all over the world? It’s almost as if we’re deliberately attempting to defy nature. We’re doing the reverse of what we should be doing, with everybody’s silent acquiescence.”
He sees that the most sensible direction lies in accepting the doom of civilisation. A terminally ill person doesn’t usually go on a binge (that belongs more to the denial stage — like the one we’re in right now?), but rather does what they can, in the circumstances, both to enjoy and to prolong their life. Different priorities also tend to emerge: love and family bonds tend to become far more important than work achievements; music and art can be of true, solid comfort.
There will always be individuals who choose denial when faced with a terminal diagnosis, and indeed denial of death looks like the norm in western societies. But for many, confronting the truth produces a new ability to engage meaningfully with the life there is left and to use all their rational faculties to search for ways of prolonging it. Let’s go with that.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by