For the past few days, I’ve been enveloped in the recently released documentary, Planet of the Humans. After watching the film, I was left with many complex feelings. The overall tone is dark and combative, and the ending that features suffering orangutans was torturous to witness. I was left in tears. Questions that lingered for me after my initial viewing were: What is real? Who is telling the stories I believe to be true? Was I hoping that renewables would save humanity? What triggered me? What are the overarching truths that came out of the movie?
I have spent my young life dedicated to informing myself about environmental issues, preparing for a career protecting wild places and species, and mitigating climate change. For the last few years, I have been facilitating people through experiencing their heavy emotions as they come to an awareness of the severity of our systemic injustices. I create community spaces that reduce isolation and help participants identify how and where to reinvest their energy and passions into meaningful efforts. My wife and I have developed a nuanced 10-step program where individuals dissect our cultural norms and are invited to envision new ways of being in the world outside of those norms.
Having some insight into collective grief and the major environmental issues, I wanted to observe and understand the larger public discourse surrounding the Planet of the Humans. If this film left me thinking and feeling for days after viewing it, how are others sitting with it? Are they sitting with it? Or am I only seeing the gut-punch reflexes of a few people? I invited everyone I know to reflect on what it made them think and feel. I dug into the reviews, critiques, and social media posts and saw responses breaking down the dated and misleading statistics used in the documentary. Many have highlighted that the attack on environmental leaders and organizations doing the good work seemed unbalanced. There is lack of people of color and women experts included in this piece. A sloppily proposed solution to the issues explored is population control without the deeper questioning of the ecological footprint of those of us living in post-modern societies.
For many, these flaws in the documentary were enough to discredit it entirely, leaving some of the voices I respect to sum up their reactions by calling it “crap.”
There is something deeper happening.
Planet of the Humans has triggered a vast polarization amongst those of us working towards a livable future. Where are the nuanced reflections admitting that technologies cannot save us? I haven’t seen any critiques mentioning that the problems highlighted in the film are complex, and maybe we’re rushing into “picking sides” without allowing ourselves to feel the pain of the unprecedented moment we’re living in. The responses I’m witnessing in the public spheres seem to stem from a place of emotional reactivity and the unprocessed grief is bubbling over.
Because I spend each day thinking about what’s next for our species and how to help individuals find agency in this toxic culture, I wanted to add a few pieces of insight for further consideration. Despite its shortcomings, I see this Planet of the Humans as an invitation to look to the larger, systemic issues being presented.
Let’s start by getting real about where we find ourselves:
· The climate crisis is real and its effects are already being felt around the planet. These impacts will worsen, affecting different regions of the planet in a multitude of ways. We expect to see increased droughts, wildfires, flooding, vector-borne illnesses, food insecurity, and mass migrations by climate refugees.
· The Western paradigms are based on exploitation of human labor and ecosystems. We are devouring landscapes, natural resources, and the planet’s species that are altering and tarnishing the renewable resources we depend on to support human life.
· Racism and oppression are built into our cultural systems
· Many, if not most of us, entrenched in the Western paradigms feel a deep lack of meaning and connection. Our isolation is driving unprecedented levels of depression and anxiety.
· More pandemics are likely to occur in our lifetimes.
· Disruptions will be our new normal.
· Many of us live paycheck to paycheck and many more live without access to healthy food, clean water, and safe spaces to sleep or rest. This reality exists while billionaires also exist.
These truths are nearly unbearable to take in and most of us cope by burying ourselves in denial, avoidance, or false optimism. Another grievous truth is that there is no more time to look away or avoid reality. We have to face these problems and process the accompanying feelings that arise. It is time to lean into our heavy feelings.
Our culture, including the dominant environmental movement, has promoted the idea that we shouldn’t explore these painful feelings, they take too much time and energy from the momentum needed to get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. The larger environmental movement is terrified that if we allow ourselves to plummet into the depths of hopelessness and despair there will not be enough optimism to propel us forward. Many of us feel that if we invite in our excruciating feelings, we will be stuck with them forever. This notion is not just wrong, it’s harmful. And it’s continuously perpetuated by our fast-paced, overly simplistic, and emotionally immature cultural norms. Through my research for my graduate degree and years of sitting with people in deep grief, I’ve come to see that any solutions, if they are to be meaningful, will come from those of us who have been courageous enough to take the time and energy to feel these scary and discomforting feelings. Through processing our griefs and facing reality, we open to new solutions that were previously unavailable to us. Additionally, if we do this processing in community, we open to the emergence of the moment and new perspectives that can only be birthed by a felt sense of urgency and an understanding of the severity of the predicament.
Playing small and relying on false optimism to change the larger narrative keeps us thinking our only agency is in promoting a transition to 100% renewables and promoting programs like the Green New Deal. Many environmentalists protect the idea that if we push our piecemeal solutions hard enough, the political order might see a benefit in ushering in the renewable transition. This strategy hasn’t worked for the last few decades and it’s not working now, especially as our country is falling into a fascist state. If we are to confront these big, interlinked systems that are benefiting from our learned helplessness, we must come to the heart-wrenching realization that our ways of living on this planet are destructive and we are annihilating ourselves along with life-supporting ecosystems and innumerable species.
That is not to say, it’s not important to support initiatives like the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal or a transition to 100% renewables is only one type of action. One that depends on us contacting our legislators and maintaining hope in a top-down solution. Most of us in the environmental movement have been waiting for, working on, and holding out hopes for these changes. They aren’t coming quickly, especially without progressive leaders.
There isn’t one solution that will fix this predicament. Joanna Macy teaches us that there are three types of actions: Holding Actions, Life-Sustaining Systems and Practices, and Shift in Consciousness. We need all three in these times. In fact, we must open to a whole range of solutions, many of which we haven’t begun to imagine due to our unwillingness to face the reality of the predicament. Arundhati Roy recently mentioned that it took millions of decisions to get us here, and we cannot undo the current predicament with one sweeping act. Instead, we begin unraveling the stitches from the millions of decisions made.
We cannot start unweaving until we courageously face the truth that this way of life is killing us. And if we keep pushing forth measures to prop up our lifestyles, we, too, will die. Sit with that realization. Be with the feelings that arise from reading those words. It’s a lot, I know. But it’s also true. We must face our mortality and the mortality of everything. Eventually, everything we know and love will die. Our lifestyles have been desperate attempts to ward off our deaths. We are ephemeral beings who have gotten lost in our quest for immortality. These truths don’t change in relation to our ability to stomach them.
We are being invited to transition, to focus on regenerating ecosystems and co-create regenerative cultures. We are being asked to redesign democracy and protect those most vulnerable. Each of us must stop looking to others to get us out of this mess and instead, be our own heroes. For those of us privileged enough to have our basic needs met and a stable income, it is on us to use that privilege to start scrutinizing the current paradigms. It is time to start unraveling the threads of our toxic culture.
It’s on each of us to begin to heal from the inside out. You must tend to those feelings overwhelming you right now. You are responsible for feeling your full range of feelings, acknowledging your privilege, and taking seriously the situations in which you find yourself. You, and everyone else, is obliged to deconstruct your belief systems and come from a place of curiosity and nimbleness. You are not alone in doing this nor are you responsible for fixing everything yourself. Many of us are entering into collective spaces to heal these wounds and build courage for the road ahead.
This is your invitation to come together in heart-centered community to build consciousness around these predicaments. If you feel you’re floundering, remember there are guides and path-pavers who have been sitting with the demoralizing and difficult truths of our times. Each guide and path-paver is a flawed human being with limitations and no one leader or organization will have it entirely right. Do some investigation on your own. Use your own discernment. Allow meaning, compassion, insight, and grace to direct the way. There is no more time to waste.
LaUra Schmidt, Founding Director of the Good Grief Network
A griefworker once told me, “Grief chose me.” I feel that sentiment. From a very early age, I’ve been surrounded by– and embedded in– grief. My parents were alcoholics/addicts and I experienced significant trauma and many deaths along the way.
With such a tumultuous upbringing, I was given a choice: give up & give in or figure out why I am here and bring meaning to my own existence. I chose the latter. I choose to be a force of good in the world.
I am skilled at holding space and sitting with uncertainty and discomfort. I have worked with and through a series of modalities to clear my trauma and practice becoming the best version of myself.
I am trained in nonviolent civil disobedience, and am a Climate Reality Leadership Corps member & mentor.
While a bit of a nomad, I hail from Michigan, and graduated from Central Michigan University with a BS in Environmental Studies, Biology, and Religious Studies. My MS in Environmental Humanities was earned from the University of Utah.
I grew to understand the importance of place through spending some time living and playing in North Carolina & the bayous of Louisiana (directly after the BP oil spill). Inspiration finds me in natural landscapes and honest, open-hearted dialogue. You can reach me at Laura(at)goodgriefnetwork(dot)org
The Good Grief Network builds personal resilience while strengthening community ties to help combat despair, inaction, eco-anxiety, and other heavy emotions in the face of daunting systemic predicaments. Check out their website for more. It's an excellent resource. - Ed