hopeless and mindful in response to abrupt climate change

I used to spend a lot of time on the now-defunct LATOC message boards.

It wasn’t meant to last. One of the forum regulars wrote this obituary for it:

A half-decade or so ago, a young Lawyer from California created a very well-written and researched website explaining the concept of Peak Oil and the inevitable collapse of our modern culture and economy, which is ultimately dependent upon a continuous, abundant supply of affordable petroleum. He called his site “LATOC”, for “Life After The Oil Crash”.

In 2006, he opened a discussion forum. The LATOC Forum quickly became enormously popular.

A unique virtual community evolved on the LATOC Forum. An incredibly mixed-bag ranging from Moonbats who saw the collapse as the inevitable downfall of selfish capitalism and meat-eating, male-dominated society to Wingnuts who saw our culture as being bled to death by socialism and the loss of traditional values… Visions of the future ran the gamut from hippie-dippy communes run by Earth priestesses to post-apocalyptic wastelands where only the most well-armed badasses could survive…

Ye gads it was a lot of fun.

And, mixed-in with the humor, there was a lot of useful information… How to actually do the many things you really can to improve your lot through the collapse of the Cornucopian paradigm.

For many, it was a sort of psychological lifeline. Most people are still operating under the delusion that the ongoing collapse is just another “recession” which will eventually correct itself so that we can get back to futures of McMansions with two SUVs in every driveway, swelling 401ks, and all the rest of the meaningless crap recent generations have been conditioned to think of as “the American Dream”… So, for the few-and-far-between people who somehow see through the smoke and mirrors to the reality of TEOTWAWKI, having a bunch of people, even on the Internet, who also see the truth, was a wonderful validation.

Not only were “online” friendships started. Some of us met in real-life. Even hooked-up with future spouses. And the ultimate real-world commitment: Someone bought a dairy cow from a fellow LATOC member!

At the time, seeing this article in Esquire would’ve been inconceivable:

Scientists are problem solvers by nature, trained to cherish detachment as a moral ideal. Jeffrey Kiehl was a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research when he became so concerned about the way the brain resists climate science, he took a break and got a psychology degree. Ten years of research later, he’s concluded that consumption and growth have become so central to our sense of personal identity and the fear of economic loss creates such numbing anxiety, we literally cannot imagine making the necessary changes. Worse, accepting the facts threatens us with a loss of faith in the fundamental order of the universe. Climate scientists are different only because they have a professional excuse for detachment, and usually it’s not until they get older that they admit how much it’s affecting them—which is also when they tend to get more outspoken, Kiehl says. “You reach a point where you feel—and that’s the word, not think, feel—’I have to do something.’ “

This accounts for the startled reaction when Camille Parmesan of the University of Texas—who was a member of the group that shared a Nobel prize with Al Gore for their climate work—announced that she’d become “professionally depressed” and was leaving the United States for England. A plainspoken Texan who grew up in Houston as the daughter of an oil geologist, Parmesan now says it was more about the politics than the science. “To be honest, I panicked fifteen years ago—that was when the first studies came out showing that Arctic tundras were shifting from being a net sink to being a net source of CO2. That along with the fact this butterfly I was studying shifted its entire range across half a continent—I said this is big, this is big. Everything since then has just confirmed it.”

But she’s not optimistic. “Do I think it likely that the nations of the world will take sufficient action to stabilize climate in the next fifty years? No, I don’t think it likely.”

I’ve had people stop talking to me for saying stuff like that. Apparently I’m not alone in my isolation. A while back, I responded to a comment recruiting participants for a study on Nature Bats Last. It was Robyn Wagoner’s master’s thesis from Evergreen College in Washington State, and she sent it to participants when she graduated.  The title:  “Hopeless & Mindful in Response to Abrupt Climate Change.”

For those who have accepted that the abrupt climate change narrative is inevitable, irreversible and occurring now, the distress experienced is exacerbated by pervasive suspicions regarding the soberness of their conclusion. One responded confided, “There is a certain feeling of insanity when your world view is different than the majority.” This dynamic can result in the breakdown of their self-confidence, reputations and primary relationships. A surprising 80% of participants have family members with whom they cannot discuss NTHE, as expressed matter-of-factly by one participant, “I do not share this with family because they have informed me that they do not believe it and do not want to hear it.” Due to this difficulty in sharing this information with others, many respondents compartmentalize that area of their lives, leading, in essence, “double lives.” When considering sharing their narrative on abrupt climate change, 69% reported withholding their narrative due to negative responses from others, or from fear of social exclusion, while 24% powered ahead with uncomfortable or forced conversations about NTHE despite discomfort. This social isolation resulting is especially difficult for those accustomed to, or dependent upon, a high degree of social contact and approval. The resulting social exclusion has been shown to cause aggression, which can exacerbate the underlying issues. Relationships are breaking down because of strained communications between participants and their support systems, with 30% of participants having lost friendships, or other close relationships because of discussing NTHE.

My sample population had all participated to some degree with online communities for NTHE. The majority considers social media to have been an important therapeutic agent to ease the anxiety and depression, which is exacerbated by the social isolation occurring due to sharing unpopular views on abrupt climate change and NTHE. Sadly, 15% of respondents can only discuss NTHE online with strangers and are otherwise completely isolated with this knowledge. The opportunity to participate in conversations about this taboo topic has shown the most potential for therapy.

All of the respondents report experiencing some level of emotional distress from accepting the common narrative, and 35% sought behavioral treatment. Typical complaints were: anxiety, panic attack, sadness, a loss of motivation, withdrawal, fatigue, physical pain, burdened, mental confusion, and loss of meaning. Many respondents already had a history of depression or anxiety related to prolonged exposure to increasingly pronounced environmental degradation, and 55% had been taking medication for symptoms of depression, anxiety or bipolar prior to adapting their current narrative on abrupt climate change. Several admitted to self-medicating with marijuana. As noted in the literature, in some instances, this depression may be advantageous for circumventing normalcy or optimism biases that inhibit realistic risk assessment. Subjects’ maintenance states of depression become complicated by bereavement, as they grieve for the planet, and the future of everyone and everything that is, or could ever have been. Complicated grief is driving a wedge between respondents and their friends and family members. Deep feelings of hopelessness, shame, and anger exist.

I also found that for those able to work through trauma, commonly reported positive experiences of accepting NTHE include feelings of vindication, relief, presence, immediacy, gratitude, and acceptance of, and appreciation for, life as it really is; as well as increased motivations to achieve life goals, volunteer for personally meaningful service, forgive transgressions, connect with loved-ones, and commune with nature. This quote was particularly illustrative:

“Accepting our ‘inevitable extinction’ has left me feeling calm and peaceful after years of anger and frustration. I feel pity for the various agents of habitat destruction these days, as opposed to my previous fury and hostility.”

OMFG THANK YOU FOR DOCUMENTING THIS. It’s extremely distressing to deal with the end of the world all by yourself.

LATOC was actually a lifeline. Who are the people on the internet who see things like me?

The average participant was a married white non-religious heterosexual, aged 45 to 64 who was an environmentalist, with either Green or zero political affiliation, and a masters degree; retired, and earning between $20k and $40k/year; living the US in an urban or suburban neighborhood; would prefer to live in a rural village, farm, or wild land interface. They are a consumer of independent and online news, Facebook, Huffpost, Aljazeera, British Broadcasting Corporation, New York Times and National Public Radio; have a food-producing garden, and one or more children, and one or more pets. Rating as “Egalitarian” in the Cultural Cognition world-view quiz, with an opinion that nature is ephemeral; and rating on the far left side of “The Alarmed” category in terms of responses to the Six Americas Global Warming survey, with some important exceptions, described in the Discussion chapter.

Hm…

What is driving these environmentalists if not the potential to save the planet? Sometimes, refusal to allow those perceived as responsible for our plight to triumph is partial motivation for participants to continue to conserve. Sometimes, a hope that other life may survive the devastation keeps them engaged, or the goal of easing suffering in the interim between life and death.

Although pro-environmental behaviors continue, there is less guilt in their lapsing. This participant goes on to illustrate the trend whereby a majority (78%) no longer participate in forms of political activism, believing them to be ineffective, yet continuing to exhibit a proportional increase in volunteer activities, especially with causes close to home, and with special interest to family and community needs:

I still fight for causes that I feel will reduce suffering for people and animals. I have reduced my contributions to environmental organizations, which I no longer believe can have any impact on climate change, and I’ve increased my contributions to local food banks, women’s shelters and homeless shelters.

Reproduction decisions were impacted in 25% of participants, who have decided not to have children because of the abrupt climate change narrative, while 50% have advised others to not have children.

Doomers find solace in Buddhism.

Buddhists make up 7.1% of the world population (Johnson & Grim, 2013), and only 6.45% of the sample base identified as Buddhist; yet 63.4% of the study population engages in some form of mindfulness practice between .5 and 7.5 hours per week. 85% of them have found it helpful as a response to the stress induced by narratives on abrupt climate change, 13% don’t know if they obtain relief, and 1% did not obtain relief. Popular foci are meditating on impermanence and detaching their desire for outcomes from their personal conservation behaviors. Respondents shared their personal sentiments on the practice, such as “Anarcho-Buddhism keeps me sane.”