Grief and Carbon Reductionism

This essay has a German translation.

The environmentalist Michael Mielke just wrote to me the following, "We came back over-and-over to the realization that the climate movement must proceed through the several stages of grief to get to Acceptance."

I am happy to see the growing recognition of what he is talking about. The grief is essential in order to integrate on a deep level the reality of the situation we face. Otherwise it remains, to most people, theoretical. After all, our social infrastructure insulates us pretty well from the tangible effects of climate change (so far). For most people, compared to say their mortgage payment or their teenager's addiction problem, climate change seems quite remote and theoretical -- something that is only happening in the future or on the news. As long as that is the case, they will not take meaningful action either, and it won't change through persuasion. Persuasion does not penetrate deeply enough. No one is ever "persuaded" to make major changes in their life's commitments, unless that persuasion is accompanied by an experience that impacts them on a physical and emotional level.

As long as grief is not fully experienced, then normal still seems normal. Even if one is intellectually persuaded of the reality and gravity of climate change, the felt reality is still, "It isn't real," or "It's gonna be fine."

Of course, by the time that the impact of climate change penetrates the structures of normalcy and causes food shortages, catastrophic weather events, etc. that impact modern Western society, it will probably be too late. So far the elite nations are able to insulate themselves from the harm that ecological destruction causes. Therefore it seems unreal. The air conditioner still works. The car still runs. The credit card still works. The garbage truck takes away the trash. School is open at 8am and there is medicine in the pharmacy. The narratives that define normal life are still intact. If we wait for those narratives to be demolished by external events -- by geopolitical and ecological catastrophe -- it will be too late.

That defines the challenge before us. How do we bring people to care as much about climate change as the residents of Flint, Michigan care about the lead in their water?

Here is what I want everyone in the climate change movement to hear: People are not going to be frightened into caring. Scientific evidence-based predictions about what will happen 10, 20, or 50 years in the future are not going to make them care, not enough. What we need is the level of activism and energy that we are seeing now in Flint. That requires making it personal. And that requires facing the reality of loss. And that requires experiencing grief. There is no other way.

That is why I am suspicious of the entire framing of the climate change issue. To focus on an abstract, global quantity (CO2 or GGE's (greenhouse gas equivalents)) creates a gap between cause and effect that requires an intellectual buy-in to the very same systems of authority that have long presided over and defended our ecocidal system. That framing, which I call CO2 reductionism, also lends itself to globalized and financialized solutions that, we have seen again and again, often have damaging ecological and social effects on the local level. CO2 reductionism has been used to justify and promote things like biofuel plantations that destroy traditional farming or wild lands, hydroelectric projects that submerge pristine ecosystems, nuclear power plants, GMOs, and even fracking.

Environmental organizations have long understood, at least unconsciously, the power of accessing grief; hence the success of campaigns invoking superstar species like elephants, rhinos, or whales. I think we can learn from that in the area of climate change. I like to make the point that everything that we might oppose on CO2 grounds can also be opposed on more local, tangible grounds. The Alberta Tar Sands projects are an example. Even if you know nothing about the greenhouse effect, what is happening there is heartbreaking. The same with mountaintop removal of coal. The same for oil field development. The same for offshore oil drilling and the whole petroleum industry (looking at oil spills). By framing them in terms of CO2, I am afraid we distance people from the aspects of those things that provoke grief and horror. If what is wrong with those things is CO2, and we avert our eyes from the immediate horror on the ground, then it seems perfectly reasonable to say, "Well, we'll offset that gas field by planting a forest. And besides, it's just transitional until we get enough wind turbines operating."

Paradoxically, the CO2 framing actually enables the continuation of all the activities that are generating CO2.

I know this verges on apostasy, but I think we need to drop CO2 as the defining narrative of "green." If you want to step into and the through the grief process as a society, CO2 is a hard sell. Sure you can say that such-and-such grievous flood in Bangladesh or drought in Niger was worsened by climate change, but people have to accept it as an article of faith, because Science Says So.

I'm not saying climate change isn't a factor. But there are causes that are a lot more tangible. In many places people say, "The rains stopped coming because we cut down the forests." I think we need to move toward making the forests sacred again, and the mangroves, and the rivers... to see them as sacred beings and not as instruments of human utility, to be protected because of their greenhouse mitigating contribution.

The attitude of instrumental utilitarianism toward nature -- that is the problem. I'm talking about the idea that the world outside ourselves is basically a pile of resources whose value is defined by its utility. If that doesn't change, nothing will change. And for that to change, for us to see nature and the material world as sacred and valuable in its own right, we must connect to the deep part of ourselves that already knows that. When we make that connection and feel the hurts of the planet, grief is unavoidable.

From this stance, we still seek to change everything that the CO2 narrative names as dangerous, but for different reasons and with different eyes. We no longer have to conjoin environmentalism with faith in Big Science and institutional authority, implying that if only people had more trust in the authorities (in this case scientific, but it extends to all the systems that embed and legitimize the institution of science) then things would be fine. You know what? Even if the "climate change deniers" are right, it wouldn't alter my environmental passion one bit. Granted, I am a sample of one person here, but to me that indicates that it isn't important to win the intellectual debate with the skeptical forces. That isn't necessary to make people care.

I am grateful that awareness of the importance of grief is entering the environmental movement. Now is the time to translate that awareness into our framing and strategy.


  1. I agree that the vagueness of carbon emissions and CO2 levels does not connect well with most people. That is the reason I chose the specific issue of rising sea level, pushing back the shoreline as the primary focus for my book “High Tide On Main Street.” In the three years that I have been doing presentations and consulting to help communities, business interests, and military understand, plan, and adapt for rising sea level I have found that it is a powerful angle. It starts with an explanation that the warmer planet will continue to see melting glaciers and ice sheets, which in turn will raise the ocean height, eventually back to the level of 25 feet higher — last occurring some 120,000 years ago. The sober realization that we have broken out of the last several million years of ice age cycles and are in a new era that will literally move the shoreline does get attention. It is necessary to make the distinction between long term sea level rise, which is essentially permanent, versus the temporary flooding from storms and extreme tides — though rising sea level will make those short-lived flood events even worse. Although I do this professionally I am pleased to share some graphics for others to use freely.

  2. Yes, changing the narrative and reframing the climate change issue to focus on the loss of sacred nature is more powerful than instrumental utilitarianism.

    I work in an industry that has yet to learn how to translate this into meaningful and compelling content, even though it provides one of the most personal and effective strategies to reduce CO2 emissions: solar. US homeowners are not frightened into caring. Here, the economic system promotes individual wealth over collective health, so when the CO2 story bumps against the world view of individual success, it barely makes a dent.

    Accessing grief and the emotional price we pay when common resources are exploited for profit will yield a better story and hasten the Great Transition to a renewable economy, and maybe even to a sacred one.

  3. Thank you, Charles, for helping to gather together the strands of my discontent and giving it a name. Grief. Of late, I’ve been experiencing a low lying and deeply troubled feeling. Or, perhaps it’s best described as a combined and strangely unified sense of sorrow, sadness, regret, and wistful longing.

    At first I thought I was being re-visited by old emotional habits; ones that accompanied my growing up and maturing and learning how to be an adult, a father, and a man, which largely fed on fear, insecurity and ignorance. And perhaps these are the normal misgivings of the learning process, but it wasn’t the same as before. This time that familiar sense permeated my whole system… and beyond… if that is possible. And it touched not only old internal doubts and regrets, but extended out to the external world too. And not just to people and things, but to a vague everything. It was uncannily familiar and close, as if it were and always had been a part of my bodily makeup.

    This time, I see it wasn’t growing pains, but it was the closeness and reverence to nature, so artfully shown in the film, Aluna, that lay at the bottom of my discontent. The intimacy was being trammeled so much around me it ached. It still does, but now with more clarity I am enjoined to go forward and redress my and humanity’s irreverent acts and attitudes.

    That is very empowering.

  4. Thank you for this post, Charles, which I feel is spot on.

    I believe it’s not overstating much to say that lack of processing of grief is the reason why climate change and much environmental degradation are occurring in the first place. It’s our own held-in and denied grief that causes a desire for things like control and security, an isolating kind of comfort, entertainment for distraction, and detunement from the consequences of our choices.

    The desire to suppress emotion leads to drug and alcohol addiction, food addictions (including eating meat and excessive intake – both to create a comforting feeling of fullness), owning addiction, aversion to change, feelings of entitlement (our “way of life”), etc. We see the world as a pile of resources because we’ve been treated that way in our own lives and haven’t grieved it. Instead of grieving, we respond with a talionic impulse to treat others and the planet the same way — we even treat ourselves that way, forcing ourselves to work in jobs where we’re defined and valued by our utility. The vicious circle goes round and round. We could end it by grieving the abuse we’ve experienced instead of suppressing our feelings about it and grieving the losses and lacks in our lives, so that we don’t continue attempting to replace them with our thousands of addictions.

    This is why I am not too optimistic that the necessary changes will happen to avoid cataclysmic effects in the environment. People will not change their choices significantly until they grieve, and most people are extremely resistant to feeling grief and other emotions (powerlessness, loneliness, etc) that would arise if they didn’t suppress them through addictions.

    I know how hard it’s been in my own life to give up addictions. I don’t mean to judge others for their resistance. It’s so hard to do and takes an enormous level of dedication to love and emotional truth. I just don’t feel enough people are “there” yet to give us collectively a shot at making the changes that appear to be needed to reverse course.

    I expect that when those addictions are snatched away — your phrase is “narratives … demolished through external events”—many people will still resist feeling their grief and other core emotions and will react in anger instead.

    Thanks for the phrase and concept of “CO2 reductionism.” I agree, the problem isn’t CO2, the problem is that we’re abusing our world and many of the people and creatures in it (including ourselves) … we lack compassion and even, often, awareness. Maybe an understanding that the beings of nature are sacred is what it will take for many people even just to begin to CARE.

  5. Thank you dear Charles. I’ve been reading your stuff for quite some time now and I’m so amazed at how close we come in our spontaneous insights.
    Bless you for all you do.

  6. Yes, this is true. It is also true that this grief is very big and very hard to experience, or at least can feel that way. Many of us are led to awaken into it, through whatever teachers are present on our own life path: suffering that we think is personal; the pain of addiction that becomes too much to bear; or the great love unleashed in childbearing. By whatever way god moves through us into god, which is the sacred world and our path of awakening.

    But when we begin to experience the reality of the enormous loss and grief present with us in today’s life experience, it can be very hard to find the tools to move through this into love. The tools to be present with it. Most of modern society’s thinking and therapies steer us back toward the box – toward being ‘safe,’ and an illusory sense of Wholeness as an individual self that does not embrace our true interconnection with all our brother and sister plants, animals, forests, and mountains.

    Just as a previous commenter says enough people may not be ‘there’ yet to step beyond addictive screens…are enough guides and teachers ‘there’ yet to midwife this work? Not just to write or talk about it but lead evolutionary change in our communities? Joanna Macy comes to mind. In fact, there are so many doing this work of reweaving and reawakening, of grief tending. But even so there is a huge gap.

    I guess what I mean is the grief is really really big. It is no surprise that most people avoid it while world society gives them every incentive to. What are the most practical and local steps we can take to facilitate this process and be present for one another as we experience it?

  7. I actually find fear to be very motivating for me personally but maybe I’m an exception. It seems fear more often makes people susceptible to right-wing demagoguery than to anything constructive.

    When climate change and peak oil first hit me hard 8 years ago, I went through a period of grief and fear that were very entangled — the grief is mostly left behind but rears up now and then (Flint being a perfect example), and the terror has subsided to a low-grade anxiety with occasional flare-ups of panic.

    My work is in the field of clean energy and the people I deal with are elected officials, government bureaucrats and hard-boiled solar developers, none of whom have any inkling of what Charles is talking about here (or if they do they keep it very well hidden). It’s hard for me to imagine how I could get through to them on another level, how I could set aside the ideological or technocratic speech for something closer to the bone w/out being dismissed. I live in Berkeley where there are people who do show up at City Council meetings and speak from the heart and they are by and large perceived as nuts and ignored accordingly. The exception is when someone tells a personal story of hardship — they’re respected (but that respect doesn’t usually lead to a just outcome).

    I have no personal story of hardship to share so for me to speak from the heart is more likely to put me in the category of some crazy Berkeley lady spouting touchy-feely nonsense. I agree with much of what Charles writes but just don’t know how to put it into practice.

  8. “I think we need to move toward making the forests sacred again, and the mangroves, and the rivers… to see them as sacred beings and not as instruments of human utility, to be protected because of their greenhouse mitigating contribution.”

    Couldn’t agree more. This is not just for the sake of the planet either. When we objectify the world (and the people) around us, we ultimately end up “objectifying” ourselves – sadly, seeing ourselves as instruments in our own lives, as means to some imagined end – instead of living soulfully and in deep relationship with everything around us and with everyone. This self-objectification just perpetuates the problem because we then feel this huge hole inside that needs filling, which most people do by further turning the world (and people) around us into commodifiable products to be sold to make money to try to fill the damn hole.

    To reverse this terrible downward spiral we first need to be aware that problem even exists. (Thank you Charles for raising this awareness so beautifully!) And then we need to understand what the solution is. Ultimately, if the problem is the objectification of ourselves, the world, and other people then the solution must be to “subjectify” those same things. Or really to re-subjectify them, since these things all started out as whole entities to be deeply related to – not used or commodified – to begin with.

    When we talk about indigenous cultures as having been animistic, the belief that everything – rocks, trees, rivers – has its own spirit, we often imagine a naive view of life in which people thought little “ghosts” lived inside all of these inanimate objects. But this is not how indigenous peoples experienced the world at all. This “ghost in the machine” notion is just another modern, Western overlay. The reality is that indigenous people formed meaningful relationships with the world around them – with fire, with the sun and moon, with the animals they hunted, with the sacred plants they ingested. This is what it means to subjectify the world. To relate deeply and meaningfully to everything.

    And, yes, I also agree about the importance of grief. When we start relating to everything (and everyone) in deep meaningful ways, as seeing them as mere objects to be used, the devastation just gets that much more painful to bear. Grief, it turns out, is a healing force that is there to cleanse and revive our own hearts. A necessary part of this larger process of the re-subjectification of the world.

    Blessings to all on this difficult journey!

    • Thank you, Jai, for saying what’s been rising in me. Our deep cultural conditioning has been all about winning and losing, good guys and bad guys. We’ve needed an “enemy” to clarify our identity. In that vein, carbon emissions have become our chosen “enemy,” and anybody unwilling to “fight” is a coward.

      Instead of re-setting our limits to a “space between stories,” why don’t we recognize that every story had its hero, its victim, its perspective on challenge, its moral lesson. Having been there, done that, and knowing better now, let’s suspend the “story.” We no longer need to empower subjects to act upon objects in a cause-and-effect relationship. We can open our awareness to other possibilities, such as appreciating the abundance of the Universe, recognizing our individual resources and abilities to serve, consciously doing all we can to enhance potentials ….

  9. A wonderful article – so true! I’ve always gone to Nature for healing from the pain of life, but now I feel constant grief because even Nature is dying (or coming close). I probably am in the depressed stage before the acceptance stage (I’m done with bargaining) but can’t see how the acceptance stage plays out. I live simply, grow my own food, etc. but as I become old (and as I adopted a cat who’s terminally ill), I see death around me every day, with no “rebirth” apparent (yet). I know that one has to go through grief, with no guarantees about what’s on the other side. Some days are better than others. I use creativity to help me deal with it – and this fall I’ll have a book of poetry entitled, “Elegy for the 21st Century”, (FutureCycle Press) doing just what you suggest – reaching out to people through heart and human/animal examples. I hope we who are aware can touch other people’s hearts before it’s too late. Keep writing these wonderful articles! And thank you.

  10. Thank you, Charles, for all your great work so far! (I’m listening to The Assent of Humanity, that you recently posted as an audio book… after reading and continuing to play with applying Sacred Economics to my life and professional engagements).

    Also, thanks for reminding me/us of the profound grief, and grief work, that needs to be done during our reunion journey (re-leaguing God/Spirit, Nature and each Other). As some have stated already, this grief seems big and weighty. More than I, or even we, can bear. I have been endeavoring to practice this integration of mind and heart, ever since I was introduced to integral theory, and working with the community to embody “integral leadership in action.” (… to embrace and reunite the rifts in body, emotions, mind and spirit, and between the value spheres of self, culture and nature.

    This, as you point out, entails embracing my (& our collective) shadow. This was a core part of the “men’s movement” or “men’s [emotional] work” & healing, of the early 1990’s. This started to help me get in touch with this (imagine all day drumming, poetry, verbal/emotional sparing and role playing gatherings). But I realized after reading this blog, that I wasn’t bringing this “shadow work” or “grief work” (dare we call it “play”?) into my current endeavors with soils ( and local sustainable to –> regenerative food production (

    So now you’ done it! I immediately started discussing the CO2 reductionism problem inherent in our bioproduct market development work with my partners. As well as starting to open ourselves, again (and ongoing?) to the profound grief that is, mostly unconsciously, motivating our work. So THANK YOU, again!

    How we stay in tune with our painful emotions (loneliness, feeling abandoned/unwanted/unheard/unseen, the deep grief/despair/discouragement/doubt/disappointment/overwhelment, and resultant anger, resentment, hurt, etc., etc.) without getting bogged down, wallowing, or medicating (with various addictive or compulsive behaviors) is key! And then pivot or practice moving to the more joyful emotions (hopefulness, positive expectation/belief, enthusiasm, eagerness, happiness, joy, freedom, love, etc.) is also key! This “inner work” is also a pathway to both personal flow and reunion (yoga, connection, etc.). An as you, and others have pointed out, this requires a revolution… connecting the inner with the outer… what you’re calling “interbeing.” So I immediately resonated with the title of your forthcoming book… “The Revolution is Love”! And grief shows us how much we love, through the experience of losing of it, or her, or them.

    I for one, feel I’ve lost enough for one life time, for one human epoch. And it’s always the right time, i.e. NOW, to move from degeneration to regeneration with myself, ourselves/relationships with fellow humans and nature (rocks, soil, creatures and the spaces between us and our worlds through which we can communicate and relate). So embracing the honorable (yet illusory) “other” (person or nature) with an honest tenderness and compassion, is one (key?) method of this PLAY. The Play of living into and through a more beautiful narrative… a world that we all know is possible, as you say. And, of course, it’s a joyful play! It’s to engage in a simple practice … LOVING.

    Charles, I very much appreciate your comprehensive mind and generous heart.

  11. Charles, your article was eloquent. It’s certainly an urgent problem which must be addressed asap. However, I think anger at the weather manipulation guys will solve the problem. And I must say, beautiful words will not correct the problem. Evil humans are causing the problem quite purposefully.

  12. Louise, I feel compelled to respond to your post. I think I understand your sentiment, though I feel that the grieving process offers a an alternative path beyond anger.

    Anger is one of the five phases (stages, realms, states) of grief. The others being denial, depression, bargaining and acceptance (see… I have noticed, in my own life long play/stories around grief [starting with the death of my mother when I was 5 years old], that they are more states, or phases, rather than “stages”, non-linear, more network-like and constantly interactive… and life long!)

    However, bargaining and anger, are important states that I move in and out of, and sometimes, through (my dear friend used to constantly remind me about the modern coaching dictum, “Dan, remember, the only way out, is through”). Bargaining with its associated anger, usually means “blaming” self or other for ones loss (either death of a loved one, relationship, other big loss, especially as Charles is saying in this blog, the death or destruction of the environment: species extinctions, global warming, clear cut forests, polluted waters, etc., etc.). But labeling the “perpetrators” as “evil” (be they “God”, “the Man”, the “Terrorists”, the “Capitalists”, the “Fat Cats”, the “murderers”, the “El Stupidos”, etc., etc.), while a method for endeavoring to displace the grief off me onto the Other (whether human, angelic or devilish), is a form of “bargaining”. That is, “If only those bad people (greedy, evil, stupid, sick, power hungry, narcissistic, devils, etc., etc.), did not do such stupid, evil, terrible, etc., things, our world would be a better place. If only they came from love, rather than greed, hate or righteousness, we would have a much better world”. However, it’s all our world… we are not separate from them or it. Dang!

    Because we are all “polluters”, we are all contributing to global warming, and climate change, as well as water pollution (e.g. where does your personal waste products go when you flush the toilet, or put paint or chemicals down the sink?).” As Charles has said in “Assent of Humanity,” as well as “Sacred Economics,” it’s part of the “system” (scientific determinism, usury capital, etc.) that is a result of our profound separation story (we are separate from “them”, the “environment”, “God”, etc.), that we have been building on and living within for centuries… Charles makes a compelling case that I is likely situated in our very biology.. though not in a deterministic way, but that it has become part of our “story”, the “narrative of separation.” I agree with him about this.

    While I’ve been a “professional” and personal environmentalist and environmental entrepreneur all my life, I am more in agreement with Charles, than ever before, that the “revolution is Love”! Which means, in the radical sense, to not only “Love our neighbor” (as Jesus admonished us 2,000+ years ago with the Lords Prayer, where he says, “… we forgive those who have sinned [committed stupid, or evil acts] against us”), but also, more radically, to Love Everyone… including the “evil doers”, murderers, including the Capitalists, and Terrorists, and… dare I say… ourselves! From that place of love, acceptance and joy, we can then truly lead the revolution that is Love.

    While anger is warranted and an appropriate phase of grief (grieving the loss, or the not receiving, what we want or feel we deserve), war against the evil doers (i.e. the impulse to want to “destroy” or “eliminate” them) is not the answer. In fact, it’s not even possible! I first experienced this when I asked my father (a World War II Navy pilot veteran) to sign my Conscientious Objector papers when I was 17 (1967), and he said, “Absolutely not! Anyway, what do you know, you’re just a punk kid!” That was a wound that I have been grieving all my life. But here at the age of 65, I’m still sticking to the radical and revolutionary practicing of love, over hate and war. Way not easy, but a way to cope, and manage the profound anger I feel toward God, everyone (and myself!… i.e. guilt) for the despoiling of our precious environment … who is part, and parcel to my/our self. This is, in my view, the call and profound challenge, of grieving the rape and pillage of our Mother/Lover Earth!

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