Applying the stages-of-dying model to climate change

The change we need in half a generation is before us. Each of us can play our small part to end the cycle

As we cope with the prospect of planetary death and all that means according to the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross model of death and dying, we need to change our personal habits. One of the changes is to move to a plant-based diet. Photo by Mike Robinson

Mike RobinsonThose of us who signed up for Introductory Psychology 101 as university students were likely exposed to Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s model on the five stages of dying and death.

I admit I had to look them up again to write this. But once found, I immediately recalled struggling with their ordered sequence in a lecture all those years ago at the University of British Columbia.

The five stages are chronologically: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, ultimately, acceptance.

Kubler-Ross’s book On Death and Dying, based on her work with terminally ill patients, was first published in 1969.

When I think over the intervening five decades since I first heard the lecture on the Kubler-Ross model, inevitably I apply the five stages to those relatives, friends and acquaintances who have died. Some offered classic cases of the model’s sequence.

The best deaths (I realize that’s a discordant phrase) have all occurred with evident acceptance.

I’ve also experienced strenuous individual denial and anger, preceding a more moderated period of pretended remission or eagerly bargained for extra years of life. The depression stage was as much with me as those whose death I watched, depending, I think, on my degree of affinity and proximity of spirit with the dying.

All of this rather morbid stuff is top of mind because I recently had an epiphany while reading the online edition of the Calgary Herald.

I always read the comment threads after the opinion pieces, and increasingly I’ve been struck by the overwhelming anger expressed at the concept and the science of climate change. The vast majority of online comment is from readers who appear to believe that a cabal of scientists is attacking the oil and gas sector, wish its imminent demise and could care less about the hard-working citizens who pay their taxes with petrodollars.

Inevitably the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (and its implementation of federal carbon taxation) is cross-spliced with the climate scientists, as if liberalism and fake science were joined at the hip.

These same readers are jubilant at the demise of the NDP government of Rachel Notley in Alberta and delirious with joy at the rise of the UCP leadership of Jason Kenney – he of the $30-million “war room” to combat the evil climate crisis non-governmental organizations, and he who immediately nullified Alberta’s carbon tax.

My epiphany is that the raging anger being expressed is equivalent to the anger felt by a recently diagnosed terminally ill patient. It’s Kubler-Ross stage two anger. It’s anger about the impending death of our planet.

It’s also inextricably linked to the stage one denial of the science that underpins the diagnosis and the prognosis for the planetary patient.

If my thesis is correct, humans are now manifesting the five-stage model, not just for themselves, but for the planet on which they live.

The fact that humans identify with the Earth’s life cycle, and respond to its terminal diagnosis in human terms, is worthy of thought.

Hopefully, as the disease progresses, the Kubler-Ross staging progression will also advance. Ideally, anger will give way to bargaining and here we may still make some real gains in treating our disease.

The immediate problem, however, is the scientific consensus that we have as a species about 15 years left to change course with respect to our aggressive carbonization of the troposphere. As never before, time is really of the essence.

So what do we do?

I think there’s a wonderful role now for early adopters. Global citizens like Greta Thunberg have moved on from denial and anger to skilled bargaining with both power holders and, perhaps more importantly, enlightened people everywhere.

The change we need in half a generation (15 years) is increasingly before us in print, TV and social media:

  • get off oil;
  • move to a plant-based diet;
  • live close to school and work and walk or bike;
  • seriously ration jet travel anywhere;
  • take the train;
  • make your next car electric;
  • stop using plastics;
  • re-wild your private land;
  • realize that nature needs half and conserve more public lands and waters everywhere for parks and protected areas;
  • and have fewer children.

This list grows every day.

Importantly, it can be acted on by individuals, simply by exercising the power of choice.

Maybe by doing so we can forestall depression. And deny acceptance.

Troy Media columnist Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery.

© Troy Media


climate change, kubler-ross, stages, death, anger

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