Portland, Baltimore, denial, disruptive change and the stages of grief

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Years ago, I read a little book of philosophy called Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, by Gordon Livingston. It’s organized into thirty pithy and helpful truths. Number fifteen is this: “Only bad things happen quickly.” I have a little game I play with myself whenever I think of this maxim (which is pretty frequently, even over ten years later). I theorize good things that could happen suddenly, as if even one would somehow undermine the truth of it.

The fact is that many bad things do happen suddenly and catastrophically. Earthquakes, for instance. Living in Maryland, that’s not something we have to worry about. Although we actually had one a few years ago, it was small and brief. What would it be like to have this complacency suddenly shaken by new science, as happened with the recent New Yorker article about the Cascadia Subduction Zone? This unstable tectonic plate off the coast of Oregon and Washington is apparently overdue for a major disruption. Both states boast cities and towns burgeoning with hipsters and tech companies, excellent coffee and vital industry, great music, agriculture, wine, and an embarrassment of natural wonders. An entire civilization has sprung up in the quiet interval since the last earthquake-and-tsunami in January of 1700.

Starting from its “discovery” in 1806 by Lewis and Clark, Cascadia has been fully claimed by white Europeans and settled. Downtowns swell, dams erected on great rivers generate electricity. Ferries shuttle people from islands to city jobs, bungalows are bulldozed for condos, food trucks (or, to Portlanders, carts) are amassed in charming vacant-lot villages. People bike everywhere and more pour in every year. In the early 19th century, no one thought to ask the native people of their oral histories, which reached centuries, if not millennia, into the past. There was no understanding of tectonic plates back then, nor even until the mid-1900s.

I was in Oregon reading the article when it came out, utterly fascinated that everyone seemed so unfazed. As often happens on vacations in wonderful places, I had already begun to fantasize about a move to Seattle or Portland. (Ashland was just a little too perfect, even for a fantasy.) No more! I’ll take the slow emergency of climate change encroaching on East Coast cities any day to the potential for utter wipeout posed by a coastal earthquake and inevitable tsunami. From the article:

“Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA’s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, ‘Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.’”

My husband and I took to joking that it’s a good thing we’re staying in Portland’s hip Southeast neighborhoods—that’s east of I-5. Learning this certainly caused me to wonder whether everyone in Oregon was in denial. According the article, the likelihood of this happening soon is high. Why wasn’t everyone leaving while they still could?

Although the science first caught on in the 1980s and has expanded since, the building codes weren’t revised until the mid-1990s, which means that most of the buildings in downtown Portland and its oh-so-livable neighborhoods are not seismically sound. The article may have come as a shock to New Yorker readers, but it’s nothing new to residents. A simple Google search turned up pages of links, including an article from over three years ago in the local newspaper, called “The First Four Minutes.” This speculative account includes grisly details of homes sliding down hillsides, bridges collapsing, and five-story waves wiping out seaside towns. It promises that people will go without basic services (power, water, sanitation) for months and many areas will never be livable again.

My curiosity about how the New Yorker article affected locals led me to do a little informal research, in the form of quizzing our friends and family in Portland. One response I got was, “After the run on bottled water at the store, things settled back to normal.” This same guy pointed out that, after all, the seismologists quoted in the article still live here with their spouses and children. If disaster was really imminent, wouldn’t they move? He said that one scientist was quoted in a local follow-up as saying We like it here. We’re not moving.

This Portlander wrapped up by challenging the averaged 250-year recurrence that has been contrasted with the 315-year gap since the last Big One. It’s all theoretical, he said, based on soil core samples of the ocean floor and other far-flung data. We don’t really know. Averages, statistics, and odds can be interpreted any number of ways.

These conversations invariably turned to questions about Baltimore’s recent rioting/racial unrest/violence (or its more upbeat name, “Baltimore Spring”). Portlanders, who live right on one of the earth’s most unstable fault lines, say in hushed tones, “It must have been awful. Was it near you?” (Translation: How can you live there?)

I suppose we all have to make choices of where we live. In this calculus, we confront risks and odds and quality-of-life questions. Earthquake potential or gritty urban problems. In reality, those of us who do have choices are lucky. Not everyone has the fluidity of choice and movement that privileged Americans claim as part of our identity.

On one level, denial can be a useful coping strategy. Portlanders, I’m guessing, largely ignore the potential earthquake threat and go on about their daily business. In a case like Baltimore, though, denial is less helpful. We are long overdue for some serious, systemic changes. Further denial will only keep us stuck in the horrendous injustices and violence that have plagued too many generations already.

Denial is the first of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous Stages of Grief. She coined the framework with respect to end-of-life: cancer diagnosis, other illness, or the death of a loved one. The Stages—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance—have since been used effectively to help understand and navigate other big changes, often negative ones. Divorce, layoffs, losing one’s retirement fund in a bank failure. A factory leaving town to move to Mexico, where the labor is cheaper. These are life-changing events.

It is natural to grieve catastrophic change, whether sudden or gradual. The earlier maxim, “only bad things happen quickly,” might be refined with this phrase from the film version of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation:

“Hemingway has his classic moment in The Sun Also Rises when someone asks Mike Campbell how he went bankrupt. All he can say is, ‘Gradually, then suddenly.’ That’s how depression hits. You wake up one morning, afraid that you’re gonna live.”

Gradually, then suddenly. I can’t think of a better description of the effects of climate change. Towards the end of the New Yorker article about the Big Earthquake, perhaps in an effort to make its relevance clear to East Coast readers, author Kathryn Schulz makes this observation:

“The Cascadia situation, a calamity in its own right, is also a parable for this age of ecological reckoning, and the questions it raises are ones that we all now face. How should a society respond to a looming crisis of uncertain timing but of catastrophic proportions? How can it begin to right itself when its entire infrastructure and culture developed in a way that leaves it profoundly vulnerable to natural disaster?”

Recently, some thinkers have suggested the Stages of Grief as a possible roadmap for navigating this time between stories. Certainly, grief is a sane response to the many unknowns caused by our civilization’s relationship with the environment. A catastrophic ignorance (or denial) of our utter dependence on the earth has brought us to where we are today: potentially unstoppable climate change, unprecedented species extinction, rampant inequality and injustice, economic meltdown, fascist elements staining democratic institutions. Even making a list like that is stressful.

I, for one, am ready to move into the next stages beyond denial. Hard as it was to read, I was overjoyed to see a recent article in a mainstream magazine, Esquire, taking a bold look at the pernicious effects of climate denial. The piece, aptly titled, “When the End of Human Civilization is Your Day Job,” gave shocking examples of the lengths to which deniers will go.

“And yet, despite some encouraging developments in renewable energy and some breakthroughs in international leadership, carbon emissions continue to rise at a steady rate, and for their pains the scientists themselves—the cruelest blow of all—have been the targets of an unrelenting and well-organized attack that includes death threats, summonses from a hostile Congress, attempts to get them fired, legal harassment, and intrusive discovery demands so severe they had to start their own legal-defense fund, all amplified by a relentless propaganda campaign nakedly financed by the fossil-fuel companies.”

When reconsidering the cultural stories that we live by, a useful resource is Shawn Coyne, who makes the case for an expanded version of the Stages of Grief as a “coping with change” narrative. This is a form of Joseph Campbell’s classic Hero’s Journey. In Coyne’s version, Shock is the first stage, followed by Denial,  Anger, Bargaining and Depression. The hero (or heroine) is five stages in before he or she pulls it together enough to take effective action.

Kubler-Ross’s Acceptance phase gets more nuanced by Coyne, who breaks it down into three sub-phases. First comes Deliberation (okay, now what am I going to do about this?), then Choice (the making of which reveals essential character and changes the hero irrevocably) and finally Integration (which becomes the new baseline for the next adventure).

Portland or Baltimore, New York or Bangalore, we all live on Earth. Whether it’s earthquake, civil unrest, economic upheaval, climate change or something else, we are always confronted with risk-assessment and the inevitable stages of grief that accompany disruptive change. I like knowing what those stages are. I may not be able to skip any of them, but maybe I can navigate them with just a bit more grace and imagination.


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