Posted by: Mike Grenville | 5 November 2014

Healing Our Fear of Death

Although death is featured on the front pages of daily newspapers, Western society today has become death phobic. Talking about death is mostly taboo, and we actively avoid people who have been recently bereaved.

A century ago, life was more precarious and we all came across death many times in our lifetime. In 1910 most people died in their own bed at home while a hundred years later in 2010, 58% of all deaths in England took place in hospital and only 19% in their own home. [1] While just under half a million people die every year in England, about one every minute, many adults may have never experienced someone close to them dying, and few have ever seen a dead body. Children are frequently kept away from funerals even when it is someone close to them and when they specifically request to be there.

While all life naturally seeks to avoid death, this is not the same as fearing it. If a branch falls from a tree, we step away. But we have an additional fear of what will happen after we die. Since fear of death is not the experience of every culture, it must be something that is somehow taught. In part this can be explained by a our cultural story of there being a judgmental God. [2]

But why over the last century have we become so phobic about death? Over the next few years I believe we have a unique window of opportunity to face and heal this trauma. This is because of the 100 year anniversary of the Great War, later named World War one. There are a number of reasons why the seeds of our death phobia were sown at this time, and were compounded by other factors in later years.

coffin making

French soldiers making coffins during WW1

Firstly the trauma of the war itself. The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was over 37 million. There were over 16 million deaths (which includes about 10 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians) and 20 million wounded ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history. About two-thirds of military deaths in World War I were in battle, unlike the conflicts that took place in the 19th century when the majority of deaths were due to disease. Nevertheless, disease, including the Spanish flu and deaths while held as prisoners of war, still caused about one third of total military deaths for all belligerents in WW1. [3]

The horror of the war for those who survived was so great that afterwards they did not want to talk about it, and those back home did not want to hear it either. The curse of the famous British ‘stiff upper lip’. [4] At the time, most shell shock victims were treated harshly and with little sympathy as their symptoms were not understood and they were seen as a sign of weakness. So instead of receiving proper care, many victims endured more trauma with treatments such as solitary confinement or electric shock therapy. [5]

Although men were not compelled to fight until Conscription was instated in 1916, there was enormous social pressure on men to volunteer. [6] For example, at the start of the war in August 1914, Admiral Charles Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather. The organization aimed to shame men into enlisting in the British Army by persuading women to present them with a white feather if they were not wearing a uniform. [7] By the end of the war, the slaughter of millions of idealistic young men appeared catastrophic and senseless. This created some sense of guilt in many who had been so enthusiastic supporters of the war at its outset and so had their own reasons to participate in the conspiracy of silence.

The trauma of these deaths was compounded by the fact that no bodies were brought home for a funeral or to bury. In the early days of the war a handful of officers bodies were repatriated to the UK with the cost paid by relatives. However repatriation from a war zone was banned from mid-1915 mainly because of the logistical, health and morale problems the return of thousands of bodies would create. So all a family received was a telegram that began “Deeply regret to inform you…“. [8]

At the end of World War One, the 1918 flu pandemic (that lasted from January 1918 through to December 1920), infected 500 million people across the world, including remote Pacific islands and the Arctic. It killed 40 to 100 million of people—three to five percent of the world’s population. To maintain morale, wartime censors minimized early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, Britain, France, and the United States; but the newspapers were free to report the epidemic’s effects in neutral Spain, creating a false impression of Spain as especially hard hit—thus the pandemic’s nickname ‘Spanish flu’. [9] The virus predominantly killed previously healthy young adults and brought large scale death right into the heart of communities.

One more significant event in the 20th century has compounded this disconnection from death in society has been the National Health Service in 1945. This has taken both birth and death out of the community and into institutions and the hands of professionals. This is compounded by the pervading view that considers death in hospital to somehow be a failure.

The collective agreement of how to deal with large scale trauma and death at the end of the Great War, was to not talk about it. Tragically, far from being “the war to end of all wars”, WW1 scarred western society whose sons were sent to die in another war within a generation. This became parental patterning that taught the generation that lived through WW2 to not talk about it. From my own experience I know almost nothing of how my mother lived under occupation in France and only a handful of wartime snippets from my father he told me in his dying months. Of my grandparents I know almost nothing, a gap in our family story that I hear echoed from so many people when I ask what they know about their grandparents in WW1. To not know the story of your ancestors is to be cast adrift without a map.

So it seems that WW1 marks the point where we stopped telling the next generation about where they had come from. Losing respect for themselves, the next generation had no elders to look up to and learn from. Today we have replaced elders with celebrities chosen from amongst our peers without substance. This brings with it the fear of growing old and the loss of respect. As Stephen Jenkinson [10] points out, we are a ‘competence addicted society’ so we fear this loss of abilities since it is only in our being able to do things that we derive our worth.

There is an important reason why we need to face our WW1 stories. Studies with mice have found that the genetic imprint from traumatic experiences carries through at least two generations. [11] This means that the trauma of past wars is passed down. This collective and individual unhealed trauma is a significant part of why we are unable to deal with death as a part of life in modern society. All these factors taken together have contributed to society focusing as little as possible on death as an integral part of life.

The Preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO declares that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed”. [12] The current 1914-1918 centenary of WW1 presents us with an opportunity to critically reflect on both the legacy of World War I and the continuation of war in our world. By doing this, together with connecting with our own family stories, we can begin to heal the pain passed on to us from our ancestors and contribute to bringing about the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. [13]

Mike Grenville


Posted by: Mike Grenville | 5 November 2008

Getting Stoned

Standing Stone Installation – kewego
How did standing stones get there? This group of people most without any previous experience moved a stone to its new home and showed that it can be done.

Droping it into the hole was a bit more problematic but it got there in the end!

Ragged Hedge Fair, August 2008,
Home Farm, Cirencester, UK

Posted by: Mike Grenville | 22 October 2007

Peak Oil Is So Last Year

According to a global oil supply report presented by the Energy Watch Group at the Foreign Press Association in London on 22nd October 2007, world oil production peaked in 2006. Production will start to decline at a rate of several percent per year. By 2020, and even more by 2030, global oil supply will be dramatically lower. This will create a supply gap which can hardly be closed by growing contributions from other fossil, nuclear or alternative energy sources in this time frame.

Jörg Schindler “The most alarming finding is the steep decline of the oil supply after peak”, warns Jörg Schindler (pictured right) from the Energy Watch Group. This result, together with the timing of the peak, is obviously in sharp contrast to the projections by the International Energy Agency (IEA). “Since crude oil is the most important energy carrier at a global scale and since all kinds of transport rely heavily on oil, the future oil availability is of paramount importance as it entails completely different actions by politics, business and individuals.”, says Schindler.

This cautious energy outlook corresponds with statements made by former US Defense Secretary and CIA Director, James Schlesinger, who said at ASPO oil summit in Cork in September 2007: “The battle is over, the oil peakists have won. Current US energy policy and the administration’s oil strategy in Iraq and Iran are deluded.”

Renewable Energy Blocked

However, until recently the International Energy Agency denied that a fundamental change of energy supply is likely to happen in the near or medium term future. Hans-Josef Fell MP, a prominent member of the German Parliament, is clear: “The message by the IEA, namely that business as usual will also be possible in future, sends a diffusing signal to the markets and blocks investments in already available renewable energy technologies.

Remaining world oil reserves are estimated to be 1,255 Gb (Giga barrel) according to the industry database HIS (2006). For the Energy Watch Group (EWG), however, there are sound reasons to modify these figures for some regions and key countries, leading to a corresponding EWG estimate of 854 Gb. This oil supply outlook does not rely primarily on reserve data which in the past have frequently turned out to be unreliable. Hence the EWG analysis is based primarily on production data which can be observed more easily and which are more reliable.

Peak Oil Is Now

“The oil boom is over and will not return. All of us must get used to a different lifestyle.”, said King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the largest global oil producer. For quite some time, a hot debate has been going on regarding peak oil. Institutions close to the energy industry, like CERA, are engaging in a campaign trying to debunk peak oil as a “theory”. However, the EWG report shows that peak oil is real. The world is at the beginning of a structural change of its economic system. This change will be triggered by a sharp decline of fossil fuel supplies and will influence almost all aspects of daily life. Climate change will also force mankind to change energy consumption patterns by significantly reducing the burning of fossil fuels.

Anticipated supply shortages could easily lead to disturbing scenes of mass unrest as witnessed in Burma this month. For government, industry and the wider public just muddling through is not an option anymore as this situation could spin out of control and turn into a meltdown of society.

Culture Of Denial

“My experience of debating the peak oil issue with the oil industry, and trying to alert Whitehall to it, is that there is a culture of institutionalised denial in government and the energy industry. As the evidence of an early peak in production unfolds, this becomes increasingly impossible to understand”, says Jeremy Leggett, the Solarcentury CEO and former member of the British Government’s Renewables Advisory Board.

The full report can be downloaded here: Crude Oil – The Supply Outlook

Posted by: Mike Grenville | 18 October 2007

Shadow Energy Minister Joins Peak Oil Debate

Charles Hendry MP for Wealden joined a debate in Forest Row on 24th September 2007 about Peak Oil and how the community should respond. Highlighting the energy crunch that we face was journalist and environmental campaigner Mike Grenville.

Charles Hendry & Mike Grenville

Speaking at a Transition Forest Row event, Charles Hendry MP for Wealden and Shadow Energy Minister said that while “the effect of climate change was apparent” and that “we should move to a carbon free world,” he remained a skeptic regarding Peak Oil.

Grenville highlighted how dependent society has become on fossil fuels. From our clothes, to medicines, heating, transport and most importantly our food, we have become utterly addicted to oil to power our society. By adding the equivalent of the population of China every 10 years to the world, worldwide demand increases every day.

The question is what happens when the ability to extract, refine and deliver oil is overtaken by demand. Conventional thinking is that this is decades away and that when it happens there will be an undulating plateau as societies adjust. However many analysts believe that when this happens the bubble that says we can have as much cheap energy as we want will burst leading to severe social and economic disruption. Indeed Grenville pointed out that this is already happening. With oil currently at an all time high of over $80 a barrel, a growing list of countries have already reached peak oil – the price where it has become too expensive for many purposes. These are countries that don’t often make headline news in the UK but include Myanmar, Nepal, Ghana, Nigeria, Argentina.

Peak Everything

In fact resource constraints are not just about oil – gas, water, soil, trees, fish, phosphate, and others are all in crisis.

Among the reasons Hendry gave for his Peak Oil skepticism was that technical progress means that more oil is extractable from oil fields. Through technology developments oil can be discovered and extracted at great depths of water and rock. He also said that “Talking to BP, they are finding new oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Tough Oil

While one would expect an industry to develop its technology over time, the fact that it is having to spend very large sums to look for and extract oil in remote places is another indication that the days of easy oil are coming to an end.

However while there have been a lot of claims of large finds of oil, many have not fulfilled their initial promise.

While Hendry and Grenville disagreed on the urgency of the oil constraints, they did both agree we should be taking action now to reduce carbon emissions.

Carbon Tax

Among Hendry’s suggestions were putting a ‘tax’ on carbon, so that all forms of renewables become more attractive to investors; requiring microgeneration facilities to be part of new developments.

Local Food

He also said that “people should be encouraged to buy local produce and to recognise that we all need to change the way we live our lives – but by doing so, we will actually be eating more healthily and not just in a more environmentally-friendly way.”

In Our Hands

“If Forest Row can’t make a Transition Town no where can! You have local produce – don’t need to fly it in. Need to eat seasonally – why do the green beans from Tescos still look good after three weeks when others don’t? We need to ask more questions about food and recognise the quality of local food.

“The future” Hendry said “is in our hands and not the oil companies.”