For it is only unacknowledged trauma that prompts us to act out in ways that make the problem worse. If what we have been calling “climate change” is, in fact, an unprecedented form of trauma that is prompting us to act out in such perplexing ways as questioning the validity of facts themselves, then there is tremendous potential for societal and global healing in simply bringing awareness to the nature of our collective wounding. As anyone who has walked a 12-step path will tell us, awareness is a powerful elixir.
A willingness to live without hope allows me to accept the heartbreaking truth of our situation, however calamitous it is. Grieving for what is happening to the planet also now brings me gratitude for the smallest, most mundane things. Grief is also a way to honor what we are losing. “Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them,” thinker, writer, and teacher Martín Prechtel writes. “Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.”
The animals know this and now all humans know this as well. Sensing the imminent death of all species, the cellular understanding of our common fate is making us ill. Our nervous and physical systems cannot bear this terrible knowledge. The growing understanding of the reality of the human caused 6th Extinction is resulting in Extinction Illness.
This planet is dying. Not just in the way that life on Earth is always, inevitably beginning and ending, that species are rising and falling, that extinction and evolution occur, and that temperature and sea levels cycle dramatically and irregularly. In the 21st century, Earth is hurtling toward a specific death with a shape, a name, and a timeline. It is dying of global warming, climate change, extinction, biological annihilation, and ocean acidification. The exact names and the exact timing is debated, but the overall trajectory of life on Earth is well-understood: We are in the midst of Earth’s sixth mass extinction, and the odds of human civilization reaching the 22nd century are often estimated at no better than 50/50.
Nearly 70 percent of Americans now say that climate change is caused mainly by human activity, the highest percentage since Gallup began tracking it two decades ago. The number of Americans who say they worry “a great deal” about climate change has risen by about 20 percentage points. But people don’t change their minds easily about controversial issues. So what is behind this trend?
In order to talk about extinction anxiety I first need to address epistemological anxiety, otherwise, you won’t know if what I am saying to you is a bunch of ‘fake news’ served up by yet another privileged white male. Epistemology is that branch of philosophy concerned with how we come to have knowledge about anything at all. In the age of Trumpism, this is a question about truth and lies. Like the negative space on a painter’s canvas, Trump’s compulsive lying (averaging about five a day since he became President, according to the New York Times) brings into stark relief the question of what truth is and how we come to know it. It raises the question of our own critical thinking skills in assessing the veracity of information sources and our own predisposition to believe false information that reinforces our entrenched positions. Furthermore, Trump has introduced a new form of lying to the political sphere, lying as entertainment
But it’s the psychological factors, and the biology in which they’re grounded, that sustain denial.
To maintain our capacity to address climate change, we need to recognize and address the trauma it creates.
That’s right, folks. While the Search For Extraterrestrial Life (SETI) spent the last three decades fruitlessly scanning the heavens in search of alien signals … we’ve actually been surrounded by a miraculous variety of intelligence on the only planet we know for a fact sustains life.