It’s time to grieve the world we’ve lost to climate change—and start to move on

There's no turning back, but there is hope.
Smoke during sunset.
Fighting for a better world means fighting our own despair as well. Pixabay

The following is an excerpt adapted from THE FUTURE EARTH by Eric Holthaus.

We’ve all experienced profound loss in our lives—a bad breakup, incurable diseases, tragedies that feel like the world is crumbling in on top of us. What might it mean for an entire country or society or civilization to walk together, hand in hand, through stages of grief and loss and depression and mourning, at the same time? What would it be like to anticipate not only our own death but The End, the apocalypse? That’s what it’s like to be alive in the world these days.

Beyond the forthcoming technological advances that will occur during this climate emergency is a revolution in human psychology—the way we view ourselves and our place in the grand order of things. Rising seas, mass migrations, and escalating extreme weather events mean the idea of humanity’s dominion over the natural world is about to get turned on its head. “If we don’t demand radical change,” activist and author Naomi Klein said, “we are headed for a whole world of people searching for a home that no longer exists.”

Individually, each of us will have to go through a grieving process for the loss of a world we believed in our bones would always be there. Collectively, to help mourn and accept this loss, we will have to share with one another alternative visions of a shared future, stories about how climate doom is not inevitable, and what the future Earth might look like if we do what is required—and still entirely possible—to hold off the greatest threat to our very existence.

What you’re feeling right now is not unique to you. And just because others might not be feeling it yet doesn’t diminish the intensity of your experience. You are not alone in bearing this existential dread, this fear of the future, this hopelessness. But just as important, this feeling does not have to define you. In fact, your energy, your emotion, your desire to right this wrong, is a critical part of the solution. It is precisely because you care and want things to change that you feel this way.

Cover of The Future Earth.
Cover of The Future Earth. Harper Collins

In January 2017 I started counseling for climate-related anxiety. To this day, I struggle with how to focus my attention and energy to fight climate change. But I can tell you that part of the answer is just talking about it, and to know you are not alone. Drawing from the science of psychotherapy, I believe it is possible to spontaneously and emergently solve problems in our lives—and in society—simply by talking about them. The physical act of speaking changes the way your brain works and causes you to think differently. And if we ever needed to think differently, it’s right now.

In the hundreds of conversations I had while researching this book, I kept coming back to one inescapable conclusion: as long as we are still here, it means we haven’t yet lost the fight. And that realization gives me a glimmer of hope.

I’ve come to accept the fact that we’re entering a scary time of profound change. I’m not going to push for any specific radical lifestyle changes or for any revolutionary new political campaigns in response. That’s not my place. Instead, I’m going to encourage all of us to explore possible futures based on the latest science and continue to have faith that the conversations themselves could be transformative. It’s likely that you—yes, you—have an idea that I’ve never thought of. It could be your idea that winds up making all the difference. Our time requires us to listen to the people who have been ignored and unheard because what they have to say is inconvenient to the people in power. This problem affects all of us, and so the future will require the creativity of all of us.

Excerpted from THE FUTURE EARTH by Eric Holthaus, reprinted with permission from HarperOne an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2020.