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Collapse through five stages

In 1969, Swiss-American psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published On Death and Dying – a book based upon her observations while working with terminally ill patients.  Her broad proposition was that, faced with their impending demise, people move through five emotional-mental states – DABDA – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.  Although the book has been criticised for its lack of empirical evidence, the DABDA model has been widely used to explain the emotional-mental processes that people go through in response to all kinds of unpleasant experiences… most notably bereavement, but also, for example, in response to the various forms of loss and change which are the trigger for episodes of reactive depression.

My own observation – having both experienced episodes of severe and enduring depression, having worked within the user-led self-help movement, and having won awards for creating and rolling out depression self-management courses – is that the DABDA model is helpful to those going through life-changing events and processes… so long as it is not regarded as being prescriptive.  That is, people can and do experience these emotional-mental phases in the course of adapting to their new circumstances, but they do not necessarily experience all five, they may experience them in a different order, and they may often revert to a previous stage or become stuck in just one.  Nevertheless, the observation that, ultimately, we must accept that which we cannot affect is undoubtedly valid.

The DABDA model can also be applied to our current predicament, although – arguably – most of us have been stuck in the first – Denial – stage for the best part of half a century.  Before examining the various ways in which political actors have sought to deny that we have a predicament entirely, it is worth considering some of the ways that even those of us who understand – cognitively – that we have a predicament continue to find ways of denying it.  Most obviously, for example, large numbers of us focus solely on the climate change component of the wider crisis to the exclusion of such things as energy and resource depletion, economic disintegration and rapidly falling living standards – a form of denial made all the easier if one can buy-into the belief that some kind of green new great reset will allow us to carry on with business as usual, just swapping out fossil fuels for magic renewable pixie dust.

The idea that we might need to “save the planet” is also denial.  Planet Earth happily wound its way through the vastness of space for billions of years prior to the current human infestation arriving.  And it will continue on for billions of years after we have gone.  The fact that the global temperature is rising at an alarming rate is a problem for mammals in general and for humans in particular.  But there is no reason to imagine that Earth itself will be any more concerned at our passing than it was when the dinosaurs went. 

Even talking about a “human predicament” or a “human overshoot crisis” is a form of denial, since the problem does not rest with the mass of humanity, but mostly with the “golden billion” – the majority of the populations of the Western Empire – and, especially, with the 0.1 percent of godzillionaires whose theoretical “wealth” is equivalent to the bottom 50 percent of humanity.  This global elite class – along with the army of bloated technocrats who rule on their behalf – present the ultimate examples of denial, and excuse mass denial across the Western Empire in response.  When the man who made a (second) career out of alarmist claims that we were all going to be under water by now, spends $8,875,000 on a villa on the California coast, it is all too easy to conclude that all of that sea level rise malarkey was just another money-making scam at our expense.  The same goes for Herr Schwab’s buddies when they fly into Davos in their private jets and book up all of the local steak restaurants, while lecturing the rest of us on our carbon footprints and insisting that to save the world we have to get used to eating bugs.  And, of course, their – highly lucrative – techno-utopian version of a fourth industrial revolution in which we all get to own nothing but be happy, is surely the epitome of denial.

The behaviour of the elites inevitably gives credence to the broad conservative version of denial which claims climate change to be a fraud, or at best to be grossly over-exaggerated, designed to pursue a eugenics agenda intended to shrink the population while maintaining existing wealth structures.  It is in this way that, for example, Rob Lyons at Spiked is able to treat the eight billionth human to arrive on Earth as an unbridled triumph:

“The Day of Eight Billion should be seen as a remarkable success story. Of course, there are major challenges in providing a decent standard of living to those billions of people and ensuring that everyone can have the best life possible. We need to keep pursuing new ways of feeding people and providing heat, light, sanitation, education and more…

“The Day of Eight Billion should also be a slap in the face to today’s super-doomsters – those millenarian cultists in Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil who fervently believe that politicians are murdering us and depriving young people of their futures. How can we possibly be heading for disaster when the population has been rising so rapidly for decades? Life has been getting better, not worse…

“But the craze of environmentalism is reversing this progressive trend. We are turning away from fossil fuels and nuclear power, just when the need for cheap, reliable energy is greater than ever. The current energy price hikes and shortages – and the accompanying impacts on living standards, access to food, healthcare and more – are simply the amuse-bouche for a far more bitter meal if we carry on down the path of eco-austerity.”

Lyons is no doubt correct to argue that, in practice, the various pro-technocracy climate activist groups have indeed plunged millions of people into a gathering form of eco-austerity.  But that is because such groups focus solely on the climate component of our predicament rather than seeing the broader picture.  Moreover, the proposed solution can look for all the world like an attempt to cut short the lives of billions of people today so that billions of different – and as yet unborn – people don’t have to face the ravages of a hostile environment in the future.  But like the environmentalists that he criticises, Lyons takes the challenge of finding “new ways of feeding people and providing heat, light, sanitation, education and more…” far too lightly.  Indeed, the current – and growing – energy crisis is only partially due to artificial factors – state fossil fuel bans, ESG investment rules, and ridiculous self-harming sanctions – and points to a growing mismatch between the energy required to maintain economic growth – or even to maintain the economy we currently have – and the declining energy available to us as a result of the natural process of depletion.

Denial increasingly gives way to anger as our predicament ceases being a long way off in the future and begins to have an immediate impact on people today.  Green parties – and those sections of leftist parties which have taken on the challenge of climate change – have always argued that a change in the way the economy and society operates are an essential first step before environmentally-friendly policies can be adopted.  Nevertheless, in real life they have given uncritical support to the technocracy’s version of a transition away from fossil fuels despite the hardships – eco-austerity and eco-fascism – that they understood full well the technocracy would impose on the wider population.  This is now painfully obvious to millions of people across the Western Empire who find themselves having to choose between food and warmth, with no prospect of the situation improving for years to come… If ever.  Little wonder that there is a growing, angry backlash against all things green.

Against this, environmentalists are themselves increasingly angry with the technocracy’s inability to force through the changes they believe are needed to prevent a fictional near-term “climate emergency.”  Thus far, this has been limited to angry name-calling on social media, interspersed with acts of vandalism and a somewhat unnecessary action to bring the M25 to a standstill during a Monday rush hour – something that pretty much happens on its own anyway.  But the more that inappropriate energy policy produces economic chaos and hardship, the more likely that we will begin to see acts of violence between protestors and counter-protestors.

Denial often gives way to Bargaining rather than anger.  As an example of this, consider how, faced with the realisation that non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies (NRREHTs) could not hope to replace the energy derived from fossil fuels, former environmental activist Michael Shellenberger became a largely uncritical supporter of nuclear power.  In effect, since we have to get off fossil fuels but NRREHTs can’t get us to where we wish to go, nuclear must be the solution.  There is though, a massive gulf between the theoretical physics and the practical application of nuclear power.  Where crude oil provides us with just 42 to 47 megajoules per kilogram, uranium in a standard reactor provides some 500,000 megajoules per kilogram.  This though, overlooks the enormous difference in costs between internal combustion engines and custom-built nuclear reactors.  Moreover, the way in which we currently harness nuclear energy is via nineteenth century steam turbines – uranium merely replacing the coal we used to burn, and a large part of the additional energy leaving via the cooling towers.  Certainly, in the event that someone could figure out a means of harnessing the full potential of nuclear energy, that might provide us with a means to maintain – and for those in the bottom half of the population to improve – living standards.  But using existing technology, we would need to be opening a Hinkley Point C station every week between now and 2050 to meet the proposed net zero target.  And since Hinkley C – and similar reactors in Europe – are some five years behind schedule and more than twice as expensive as proposed, this seems highly implausible.

Depression takes hold when one realises that everything that we – that is, those of us in the western economies – have become accustomed to is going away.  The high energy prices which are deindustrialising Europe and plunging millions of its people into poverty are not going to fall… at least, not far enough – although the price of everything else in the economy will be forced to as we all rein-in our discretionary spending in response.  The ambulances queuing outside the local emergency department – and the people fated to die in the back of them – are also a growing feature of the new way of life.  The dream of going off to university to make a better life for oneself is also going to wither, as demand for practical skills replaces any need for academic prowess.  As I wrote of Sarah O’Connor’s article about the tribulations of Blackpool – the poorest town in England – five years ago:

“The problem with O’Connor’s article is with the unspoken assumption behind it.  A London-based journalist who also works out of Washington DC, O’Connor assumes that Blackpool is the anomaly and that somehow it will find its way back to the globalised metropolitan world from whence it was banished: ‘Blackpool’s housing, its jobs, its isolation, its drugs, its booze, they wear people down and sometimes suck them under. But beneath all that mess, perhaps there is something therapeutic about the place as well.’

“That Blackpool (and Ebbw Vale, Merthyr Tydfil, Oldham, Jaywick and many more) might be the future doesn’t enter into O’Connor’s (or her London-based editor’s) thinking.  But nowhere is it written in stone that London’s prosperity must go on for eternity…

“Blackpool, and towns like it, is precisely the post-Neoliberal future that we were warned about back in the 1980s.  The warning has come true.  But worse is yet to come.  Blackpool is not an anomaly; it is London’s future.  And if the 60 percent of people who already live in that economy have a message for the metropolitan 39 plus-1 percent it is: ‘We’ll see you on the other side of Neoliberalism.’”

The fact that this has begun to come around far faster than expected may well explain the alarming increase in the rate of depression across the UK.  Culturally, we are sticking rigidly to the belief that economic growth and rising living standards must put in an appearance one day soon.  And yet for most people, life has deteriorated in the years since the 2008 crash, and most recently, the economic vandalism of lockdown has plunged millions more into relative poverty even as those at the bottom live with a lack of essentials like food and heating.  Certainly, even those of us who understand – cognitively – that our best days are behind us and that poverty and squalor loom large in our future, are prone to flip between depression and bargaining… maybe if we could embark on a process of managed de-growth we could avoid some of the potential horrors?  But that is an easily unquestioned “we” in that sentence.  Most of us have absolutely zero input to the policy decisions which will determine the future we are going to get – in the same way as our parent’s generation could do nothing to prevent Reagan from tearing down the solar panels from the White House roof or stopping Thatcher from handing our futures to the banks and hedge funds.  Indeed, by the time the technocracy realise that their future too is bound to collapse unless they change course, it will be too late anyway.

Acceptance will likely remain beyond most of us, because what sort of person accepts a process that will surely cause the premature deaths of billions together with a massive collapse in living standards for billions more?  Solace of sorts may be found in understanding and being thankful for the true privilege of being born into a western economy at the very height of a very brief industrial growth explosion.  The fact that so many of us did not succumb to death or disability from childhood disease, that we got to be educated to levels undreamed of by past generations, that we got to travel to parts of the planet that would have been unreachable to our grandparents (save for the ones destined to fight wars there), the fact that we got to enjoy exotic foods from around the planet, and even that we got to access the vast repository of knowledge made available by the internet, all allowed us to live lives that would have been the envy of Emperors and even Gods of previous ages… even so, it still has that 03.00am feeling that the party is coming to an end even though we would like it to go on indefinitely.

Life – even complex human life – will go on for decades and centuries to come.  But in the absence of some yet-to-be-discovered versatile and energy-dense power source, life is going to get harder with each passing day.  The old assumption that each new generation would be better off than its predecessor has been tested and found wanting.  And its passing will – one way or another – be accompanied by the end of an economic system based on the assumption that there will always be more tomorrow than there was today.  Indeed, the economic textbook which explains how we operate a perpetually shrinking economy has yet to be written… Until or unless it is, we will have to learn to accept that every proposed “solution” to our predicament is going to be wrong.

As you made it to the end…

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