Grief & The Leap Manifesto

climate changegriefLeap Manifesto

Reading news coverage of the Leap Manifesto, you could be forgiven for thinking the authors had proposed we give up on this planet and pin our hopes on Mars.

Rex Murphy called it “the most radical anti-oil agenda outside of a Greenpeace seance held in a crop circle.” For Conrad Black, it is a “giant hot air balloon of fetid sophomorisms.” Former prime minister Brian Mulroney called the authors “a group of Luddites,” and urged that Leap “must be resisted and defeated.”

Take a few deep breaths and read the document itself—it’s not very long—and you may wonder why it inspired such strident bloviation. Nearly all of its content has been promised by our current government (for instance, major investments in green infrastructure), or is successfully in place in some of our provinces (like carbon pricing, in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec), or has been tried and tested by other Western countries (think decentralized energy production in Denmark and Germany). What’s left is largely sensible, laudable, costed and explained within the document and its fiscal analysis follow-up. So why all the ruckus?

As policy issues go, climate change has always been a little bit different. Next to nuclear warfare, no issue hangs the fate of life on earth quite so plainly in the balance. If we’re struggling to talk honestly about the challenges we face and the measures we need to meet them, maybe it’s because our conversation is mired in a fog of grief. So proposed Steve Running, professor of ecology at the University of Montana, after puzzling over audience reactions to his climate-change lectures. Running was the lead author on a chapter of the 2007 Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. While presenting the climate data around Montana in the mid-2000s, he witnessed audience responses that ran the gamut from ripe anger to sallow depression.

In a 2007 University of Montana lecture, he tried to make sense of these responses by applying the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—popularized by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Running tracked these five stages against his audiences’ reactions and saw a close correlation. National Geographic revived Running’s theory in a cute send-up last fall—a photo montage of Bill Nye in therapy opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the denial stage of climate change grief, Running explained, we insist that the planet isn’t warming, or that if it is, we aren’t the cause.

In the denial stage of climate change grief, Running explained, we insist that the planet isn’t warming, or that if it is, we aren’t the cause. Those experiencing climate-change anger made comments like, “I refuse to live in a tree house in the dark and eat nuts and berries.” Running had proposed nothing of the sort. In the third stage, bargaining, Running saw former deniers explaining how living under catastrophic climate change might not be so bad. (Montana wouldn’t be so darn cold anymore!) As people reach depression, Running explains, they withdraw, paralyzed by the gravity of the situation. Coming finally to acceptance means looking squarely at the scientific facts, and then figuring out what we can do. On Running’s final Powerpoint slide: “ACCEPTANCE—LETS GET TO WORK.”

Leap looks radical if you’re set in the belief that there’s not that much we need to do. If you take the scientific community at its word, though, then Leap, or something like it, is a logical step. We can—and should—quibble over the particulars. That’s exactly what the NDP resolved to do. But clearly the Leap isn’t too ambitious—it’s appropriately ambitious given the magnitude of the environmental challenges we face. “Scientists are telling us that we need to lower our emissions fast, said Leap co-author Naomi Klein in a video address around the time of Leap’s launch. “Engineers are telling us that we can do it fast.”

One of Leap’s most ridiculed provisions, for instance, is that we cease construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure. Last winter, the journal Nature published a detailed report on how much of each country’s fossil fuel reserves needs to remain in the ground if the world is to stay below the standard target of two degrees Celsius of warming. For oil in Canada, the figure is roughly 75 percent. It’s not sensation to suggest we place a moratorium on oil infrastructure expansion—it’s just simple math.

Classically, according to both the Freudian and Buddhist traditions, we struggle with grief when we can’t imagine living with the change that has taken place in our lives.

Whatever one’s political leanings, one needs to see Leap as an opening salvo in a discussion we must urgently begin to have. It’s only one of many possible visions for meeting our challenges, but it might be the first comprehensive one placed in the public sphere. Avi Lewis, another Leap author and lead proponent, explains that the document principally takes a collection of existing proposals and “connects the dots.” If we can’t see Leap at least as a step forward, our national conversation might indeed be gripped by a grief-induced paralysis. If so, then what are we to do?

Classically, according to both the Freudian and Buddhist traditions, we struggle with grief when we can’t imagine living with the change that has taken place in our lives. We try to assert the way things were in the face of what we’ve lost or are about to lose. We pretend the loss isn’t real (denial), or we rage against it (anger); we tell ourselves that it isn’t as bad as we feared (bargaining), or else we withdraw from action entirely (depression). To get to acceptance, we have to let go of our need for life to be exactly as it was, and start to imagine life instead as it could be. We come to understand that life might be different, but that it could still be good.

When climate change is the loss we face, the old way of life we cling to is the one that helped create it: “unfettered capitalism – and the asphalt-paved, gas-guzzling consumer culture it has spawned.” That description of how things were comes not from one of the ‘radicals’ responsible for Leap, but rather from Walrus editor Jonathan Kay. In this 2010 column for the National Post, he opined that free-market conservatives would deny climate change science because “the global-warming hypothesis challenges that fundamental dogma, perhaps fatally.” From a therapist’s perspective, Kay was right on. When a loss, past or impending, rocks your worldview so completely, it’s natural to look away.

Leap, or something like it, is a pretty sensible extension of this logic: it is ‘irrelevant’ only if we are resisting the truth that another kind of economy needs to take shape. Once we look at climate change science without blinking and understand its implications, Leap looks like a credible step.

“There is a grace in denial,” wrote Kubler-Ross, in a later book with David Kessler. “It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle.” In general, it’s wise to give grief the time it needs to pass, but time isn’t a luxury we have right now.

The following is an article Michael wrote on social media during the National debate on the Leap Manifesto (April, 2016).