Denial, anger and acceptance while circling the drain


The planet is dying and we’re in denial. Photo: Dontcallmeikke via Flickr.

I remember the exact time when I knew for sure that my dad’s cancer was entering the late stages. After his six hour brain surgery he had a hemorrhagic stroke that destroyed his ability to speak and swallow. I knew that he and my mom wouldn’t be rescheduling their trip to Europe. Dad would be lucky to get out of the hospital and spend a few peaceful weeks or months at home before his death.

My mom had not figured this out yet. She was still under the impression that this was just a setback and that dad would make a full and complete recovery. I tried to tell her, but she wasn’t yet ready to hear the truth. Deep internal denial kept her steady, it was her coping mechanism. My dad’s death was unthinkable to her, she just couldn’t go there. In her mind, his demise was vague and in the distant future.

In denial

This deep denial is how climate change, peak oil and the environmental crisis in general is to the majority of Americans.

Despite the fact that 200 species go extinct every day, 90 percent of all the large fish in the ocean are gone, are gone and 97% of forests have been destroyed, most of us still think that the environmental crisis is way off in the distant future. We continue to deal with as nothing we must face now. We operate content to leave it for our children’s children to deal with. Or we passively believe that whatever might be the matter, it’s something that science, technology and “innovation” will take care of.

No need for us to leave our comfort zone any time soon.

The green fix is no fix

Green groups in every town in my county talk about home energy audits, and retrofits of insulation as the way to be more green and sustainable. From where I sit, I see it as a strategy to stay in denial.

As a society, and even as communities, we don’t want to mess with business as usual, or have scary but meaningful discussions on how to really stop our consumption of fossil fuels. We’ll continue to enable the big corporations to keep extracting coal, oil and gas, we’ll just all burn a little less.

Some people can do a little more to save money and feel good about climate. Those with the money to put in insulation are also in a position to enjoy a tax break for their efforts. It’s nothing compared to the tax breaks Big Oil gets, just a little incentive so you can feel good about what you did. No real behavior change needed.

Same game with recycling.

My county boasts a 49% recycling rate. While that’s impressive, recycling is another mind numbing light cigarette that enables big corporations to continue to make huge amounts of waste that will never decompose. Corporations put it on our backs to recycle and as a result, we never get to have the real conversation about why the mess is being made in the first place.

Circling the drain

Circling the drain is a term used in medical circles to describe a patient for whom death is impending and yet continues to cling to life. With insulation, recycling, and even hybrid cars we’re circling the drain at 70 miles per hour instead of 100 mph.

I don’t know how we can stop circling the drain. The more I learn about how unsustainably messed up industrial civilization is, the less I believe that these problems will ever get fixed.

The more I try to educate and do outreach in my community, the more denial I encounter. Those insulation gurus and recycling greenies are pretty darn entrenched in their mindset and they are more than ready to marginalize those who dare to disagree.


It’s time for me to stop fighting. Like my dad, who was dying and knew it, I now know my planet is dying too.

If you knew you were dying and only had a small about of time left to live on this planet, your outlook would change.

What are the 100 places I want to see before I die? What do I want to do? Who do I want to hang out with?

My understanding of this environmental crisis has me thinking this way. What do I want to do with my last few years before my planet’s biosphere goes into hospice?

Elizabeth Kübler Ross describes the five stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. These methods of coping are not chronological, I waver between anger, depression and acceptance.

In my angry days, when I feel we have a fighting chance around the huge issue of climate change and environmental collapse, I work to teach people how to grow food. After all, as the climate changes, we’ll need a more resilient food supply grown closer to home. Besides, having your hands in the soil is quite healing. There’s nothing like watching a garden grow to arouse awe of Mother Nature. Gardening is a perfect distraction from the ongoing destruction of our beloved planet.

On the days that acceptance of our dire fate rules over me, I try my darndest to be like a Buddhist monk and let go of attachment to the fact that my planet is dying and that my time and my children’s time here is limited.

Treasuring the present moment, like someone who knows her days are numbered, I let my kid’s homework slide. I try to be compassionate with my fellow humans who are either clueless or in deep denial about the level of destruction we’ve created. Letting go of judgement of all the people around me who are so disconnected from nature that they just don’t care about the mess they’re making.

What do you do when you’ve come to the point of fully understanding that we are simply re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

–Dr. Susan Rubin, Transition Voice

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    Thank you Dr. Rubin.
    I was thinking of this question this morning, actually. I’ve come to this conclusion: I have often found that some dream or model of the world that was in my head turned out to be impossible or I was denied access to something I thought I couldn’t live without. My life has become what it is because of who I am and what I do. If I were to find out I was dying in a short time, I would not try to do some grand thing or fill up a Bucket List. I would just continue to live as I am until that day comes. I have never thought that being someone other than who I am will change a world that doesn’t want to be changed. Facing catastrophe as someone else just doesn’t seem very proper.
    We’ve spent our lives being inundated with advertising in this past century that pushes our buttons to make us unhappy with who we are, telling us that “if we only call before midnight tonight”, our lives will be somehow “better”. The only thing we ACTUALLY end up with is a world full of people who are unhappy and buying, and we think that somehow we should do something to “save” this type of world? Screw THAT. I’ve always enjoyed watching the eddies as water goes down the drain.

    “You ask me what kind of clothes you should wear..leave that hangin’ in the air. I believe that clothes make the man. Askin’ me what kind of clothes you should wear is like askin’ me who you are. I’ve spent ALL MY LIFE findin’ out who I am..and I’m TIRED now..”
    -Marshall, “Joe vs. the Volcano”

  2. Jack Sol-Church says

    First and most importantly, the planet is NOT dying. Think about it, the planet has been here for 4.5 billion years, seen 5 complete continental drifts and probably as many total extinctions. This has been the achilles heel of environmentalists for the last 50 years. It ISN’T about the trees or polar bears or the planet. It is about US, the humans, creating an environment in which we will have a difficult time surviving.
    In another million or so years, there will be no humans (I’m guessing) but I am sure the planet will have life. Dinosaurs 165 million years – Humans 0.10 million years. Dinosaurs rule!
    Perhaps humans, for all their Oh So Much Intelligence, are actually dumber than the dinos. After all, we had the brains (some of us) to see our own extinction and chose to accelerate the process.
    So please don’t worry about mother earth. She will recover from the virus called homosapiens and be quite healthy again.

    • Auntiegrav says

      Yes yes yes..we’ve heard that rant before, Jack (or is it John?).
      What is lost is not humans, but Intentionality. That is the grand random experiment which nature is conducting with humans: an extension of the limits of storage of the DNA molecule through virtual DNA: our model-building imagination.
      As far as that experiment is concerned, the loss of humans through loss of climate stability is just another check on a clipboard, but it is a shame to develop such an experiment, with all of the precursors that it required (including the dinosaurs), and then simply throw it on a fire when the experiment itself has a self-healing function built in.
      The loss of humanity due to unquestioned belief or any other form of ignorance in a species whose sole purpose is to not be ignorant is an affront to the usefulness of all living things, past and present.
      No, it is NOT about the polar bears or mother earth: it is about the value of the progressiveness of Life itself.
      Personally, I don’t have much regret for losing the particular direction which humans have taken in the last 60 years or so (consumerism), but I hate to see an elegant experiment go to waste, even if it is entertaining as hell.

  3. says

    well written and to the point.
    I’ve been wrestling with feelings like you describe for over a year now and can honestly say I’ve lost any hope of things stopping before it’s too late.
    It’s a kind of sadness that words just can’t describe. A gut wrenching, heartbreaking realization that in a generation or so, earth as we know it will not exist.

    thank you for sharing your dad’s loss. I think that anyone who has lost a loved one will really connect with what you are saying.
    I know I did.


  4. says

    Hi Susan, I understand your approach and have frequently also slipped into despair when contemplating our present state of affairs. Our course is clearly not sustainable. There is a cure.

    Not to burden you further but the things that you mentioned in this article are not the most pressing problems. While peak oil, climate change, etc, are tremendously important what is really looming is the implosion of the financial mechanisms that have allowed it to come to this in the first place. As a long-time student of finance and economy I am witnessing a system that is eating itself at an incredible rate. Fractional reserve banking will come to an end long before the effects of climate change or peak oil are keenly felt.

    Our entire economy is based on the concept of readily available credit. Everything you presently consume is 100% dependent on it. That monstrous cornerstone of our lives is about to disappear (When I say disappear the meaning includes “becomes unaffordable”). When interest rates rise dramatically those those that are carrying significant debt or require low interest rates to function will effectively be shut out of credit markets. While this might sound like just one more disastrous issue facing humanity I do not see it in that way. The presence of gigantic amounts of financial leverage through and through the global economy has given us the power to destroy and exploit the world; only once that power is withdrawn can we hope to return to an existence that makes sense.

    I have been to Transitions meetings and while there were many well-meaning folks there none of them understood just how precarious the world of banking is. Not recognizing this critical aspect of the impending changes leads to a misunderstanding of the time-frame we have in which to operate. There will not be decades available to slowly turn the ship around. The Titanic metaphor is most apt when analyzing this issue. Most on board the ship are not even aware of the danger, even after the iceberg has been struck, and it has been struck. Now is the time to man the lifeboats. Not everyone will survive; that is clear. The notion that Earth can support 7 billion people is, in my experience, the greatest form of denial. It is time to think in terms of triage.

    Resources for building that lifeboat (whatever form it may take) will become incredibly scarce when the taps of that most precious industrial lubricant, credit, run dry. It is no exaggeration to say that industrial production will grind to a halt should companies be unable to borrow to finance their operations. There is no cash in their system, only credit and debt. By the same token, even if production was to miraculously continue, consumers could not afford to purchase the output. Therefore I urge you not to be waylaid by despair but to begin taking immediate action to address this situation. As an ecologist, environmental planner, carpenter, and organic farmer I feel that my skills are reasonably well developed to weather the type of storm we are steaming into. I have helped build a strong community of aware people with complementary abilities. Now is the time to build your own community if you have not already done so. Next would be the development of hands-on skills that will be important in a low energy future. There is a vast quantity of information out there on the inter-web to guide you but there is no substitute for actually doing the work. Focus on producing, processing,, storing , and (yes, unfortunately) defending things that will be necessary to yourself and to those within a trade network. Do not wait until the crisis has fully manifested itself before putting your plans into action. Be prepared for considerable backlash and even scorn from those who see a diversion from the status quo as a mental imbalance, if not an outright threat. This is the triage part; you are not trying to save everyone. You cannot. You will have to be selective. Some very hard choices are required. Begin by asking yourself a few questions: What do I want? (Peace, wealth, happiness, security, etc) What are my assets? (Money, land, friends, skills, knowledge, strength, etc) How much change can I willingly and reasonably make in a relatively short time? Will I be able to give up a lot of the things I take for granted? (There are no big screen TV’s, fancy cars, or easy jobs in this future).

    I would be personally very surprised if in five years time the economy is functioning anything like it does today. While the present situation may seem dire it will be much, much worse when the monetary collapse begins to accelerate on the downslope. The system we have can easily be described as a Ponzi scheme (a la Bernie Madoff). It requires a continual and ever increasing flow of money (in our case, in the form of greater and greater debt) to sustain itself. When that flow is cut off, as is happening now, the whole edifice comes crashing down. When complex systems fail they tend to experience cascade failure (think the house of cards). What took a long time to build can quickly and unexpectedly come tumbling down. This is positive feedback in effect.

    Transitions can be painful; this one may be excruciating or even fatal for some. But they don’t have to be. The rewards for taking charge of your own life and destiny are great indeed. The hard work is a small price to pay for the elation that comes from breaking free in a meaningful way from the great evil that most of humanity is sleepwalking through.

    Regards and good luck,

    • says

      Great to read your comments and good to feel that I am not alone in believing that we are on the brink of economic collapse. I hope readers listen to what you have said and follow that path.
      It is not the time for panic or despair… It is the time for action.

      • says

        Of course we are on the path to economic collapse. Yes, some of us have already asked ourselves these questions. Finances, and the power of money, does not scare us, does not lure us, does not matter to the point that we continue in self-denial and destruction. Many of us have been preparing to walk away from it all. With no regret.

        Can we do it? Most people, especially in urban settings, can not and will not. They know nothing else, they are hooked and addicted to the teat of urban-industrial society. They do not know how to fend for themselves and they depend upon the infrastructure. They will probably perish when it all falls apart.

        Some of us, however, have not been hovering in denial and have been pro-active in preparing for self-reliance. A few of us have already disconnected. It will be the small self-reliant communities that will survive. Even a few academics are now being vocal about the impending collapse and possible futures. They all reach the same conclusion: small communities that form connected self-subsistence lifestyles will survive. I agree. I lived that way for eight years in the backwoods of New England.
        We. Shall. Survive. (without credit cards, cars, phones, TV, banks,…….)

  5. says

    Here’s where I’m at… who shall I be, whatever is to befall us, and how do I choose to still belong to this world? We may think we know all that is to come, but we really don’t, and while this time holds great peril, it’s also pregnant with possibility.

    I highly recommend the new book by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone (Chris has been deeply involved with Transition in the UK) entitled Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy. It’s not sugar-coated, but a sturdy resource for navigating the emotional and spiritual pain in order to still play a part in the healing of our world.

  6. mikesosebee says

    Thanks for thoughtful post Dr. Rubin.

    “I waver between anger, depression and acceptance.”

    I think I’m there now. I also go through days of being angry and wishing to wake people so badly that I want to shake them. I struggle with becoming judgmental. Many people reject what I say outright and a lot of them are my close family. My father, 82, is trying to spend every dime he can before it’s too late (for him not the earth). My younger sister with two college age sons warned me to stay away from them because I had shared this kind of information with them.

    “What do you do when you’ve come to the point of fully understanding that we are simply re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic?”
    Last week I re-watched the film “Fahrenheit 451”, the dystopian classic based on the novel of the same name by Ray Bradbury, with my wife. The next day I had a daydream that I walk away from this horror of industrial culture and find the “book people” who were preserving the earth for a future time when humans no longer wanted to destroy it. But I realize those pure indigenous peoples are fiction.
    In the absence of the “book people” I intend to relocate to a place where I can be physically close to healthy eco-systems that aren’t in a National Park like some quaint ecology museum. I realize that those rare spaces have no need of me but I need to be close to them.
    I’d also like to do some gardening as well and hang out with like minded people. I’m quickly losing interest in being a messenger; tired of being shot at.

    • says

      This essay, and the followup comments, confirm I am not alone, despite that people around me think I’m ‘over reacting’. Outside amongst the public, on the commuter train, even in the academic halls, I feel… alone. A stranger in a strange land. “I see dead people and they don’t even know they are dead.”

      The planet will survive, but at such a great loss of life -human and non-human. Yes, there have been extinctions throughout planetary history, but not accelerated and at the magnitude of our current events. And we humans continue to ignore the interrelationships – natural resource extraction, industrialization, excessive consumption, over-population, social inequalities and injustice, self-obsession, irresponsibility, anthropocentric abuse of planetary natural systems, (finances are a small part of the overall ‘disease’), etc. At the expense of the very life-supporting systems that sustain ALL life on this planet. We are a greedy, gluttonous species.

      Mike, your last paragraph rings true. And that is why I am shortly leaving the Empire, too.
      At least I know, I am not alone.

  7. Luis Zardo says

    Great article.

    I often feel the same, I see a supermarket chop down 2 hectares worth of trees than start a campaign about how sustainable they are because they save on plastic bags…

    It´s stupid to even think about sustainability without recognizing population growth as the root of the problem, and, all this recycling and reuse and cut carbon emissions only makes things worse.

  8. Jeff says

    Humanity lost touch with the planet long ago… fossil fuels only recently expedited our demise. I believe that on average our sensitivities are changing, are reverting back to being in tune with the natural world, but the question is whether or not we’ll have the guts to stand up for these honest, deep spiritual beliefs. I pose this conundrum: when aggression is the enemy – toward each other, animals, the physical planet – how does one fight it?

    Undoubtedly future generations will wonder why we didn’t try harder to fight back.

  9. James R. Martin says

    It’s fascinating to observe that the responses required of us to prepare for financial collapse are often parallel to — or identical with — the preparation for a low-to-no carbon future, which, of course, is the solution to the climate and energy crises.

    Examples of such response are:

    ~ creating local, organic food production — ideally of a self-provisioning sort, whether these gardens are family or communal endeavors (ideally the latter). It goes without saying that these gardens use shovels and hoes and human labor, rather than fossilily fueled machines.

    ~ where possible, self-provisioning of other basic needs in a radically local manner, e.g., homemade shelter, clothing, health care….

    ~ abandonment of dependency on large scale, distant, centralized economic systems, patterns, structures…

    ~ creating community — by which I mean communties in which caring for one another, cooperating, sharing, is key

    ~ education for a post-industrial, locally self-provisioning world

    … and I could add to this list for hours, as I am sure most of the readers here can do.

    Those reading here who have land are, of course, at an advantage — especially where this land has water resources and decent soil. I hope they will share their wealth.

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