How to Address Climate Grief: With Hope and Philosophy

2019 marked a turning point in the world fight against climate change with a wave of protests from the younger generations led by Greta Thunberg.  Climate grief is growing exponentially and our contributor, environmental novelist and activist Annis Pratt Ph.D. is suggesting here a constructive coping strategy for each of us to address what is now a 30-year climate emergency. 

CLIMATE GRIEF, ACTIVE HOPE, AND THE SOLACE OF PHILOSOPHY 

“The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places. But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.” 

J.R.R. Tolkien

FEAR

Life is existentially random, full of family emergencies, career shocks, unexpected accidents, financial crises and a plethora of sudden scares, all falling upon us  out of nowhere. That’s life in ordinary times. 

These, however, are extraordinary times: the latest Climate Report from the United Nations (November 26, 2019) warns us that, since the Paris Climate Agreements, our procrastination has led to rising rather than falling temperatures.  

Barely controllable wildfires rampage through California. Day after day of relentless rainfall leaves Southern towns under water. Rising sea levels encroach New York, Venice and Miami and eradicate whole Pacific islands. Meanwhile, in southern states and the whole of Australia, temperatures soar over 100 degrees and stay there for weeks.

These disasters elicit a different kind of fear than our horror at the merely random.  Having long ago overcome our childhood conviction that anything going wrong was “our fault,” we are confronted with planetary catastrophes which are all our fault, no longer explicable as “Acts of God” or “Mother Nature” up to her usual tricks.

That is why the fear and dread we experience now is of a radically novel depth and anguish. 

 “This climate dread can last for days,” writes NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus, “even weeks. It can come with nightmares; for example, my favorite shady oak grove baking in the full sun of a heat wave, the oaks all dead and gone.”  

In her book on Environmental Melancholia (2015), Renee Lertzman concurs that “[t]here is overwhelming research that distress and anxiety relating to climate is on the rise… Many people, I’d argue, are experiencing what I’d call a ‘latent’ form of climate anxiety or dread, in that they may not be talking about it much but they are feeling it.” 

GRIEF

Whether we have lost everything but the clothes on our backs from a flood or a wildfire, are in sorrow that the frogs that used to line our river bank have shrunk to a paltry few, or feel overwhelmed by headline after headline about species loss and ecosystem destruction, our dread about the future of nature and our species can meld into a profound grief.  

When, week after week and month after month,  fresh examples of doom and gloom elicit a profound hopelessness.  “The drumbeat of news about climate change and ecological degradation is deeply demoralizing,” writes Bruce Beehler, in an article about how “Doom and Gloom Won’t Help us Combat Climate Change.”   

Nor, concurs author and public speaker Charles Eistenstein can people be frightened into caring. Which is why, he argues, disaster movies are ineffective catalyzers of climate action.  They are simply too global, too absolute.  

In order to be effective, we need to act upon specific losses: “the local, the immediate, the qualitative, the living, and the beautiful. We would still oppose most of what climate change activists oppose, but for different reasons: tar sands oil extraction because it kills the forests and mars the landscape; mountaintop removal because it obliterates sacred mountains,” etc.

ANGER

As everyone who has suffered loss knows, grief manifests in a variety of forms:  crying all day, outright denial, paralysis of the will, despair, but, also, anger. Climate grief is no different. It is this last state of mind, our fury at the demise of our beloved natural world, that can pull us out of our profound sadness at environmental loss.  

I found this anger/action nexus the first time I experienced gender discrimination: it was my rage at the injustice done to me that fired me up, spurring me out of my (situational) depression and into concerted action with a national organization that championed my cause. 


The children and teens who came out in the thousands for the Climate Strikes of September 20, 2019 were fired by furious grief. Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, who started out with an environmental depression that paralyzed her even from eating, was enabled by her fury at the irrational destruction wielded by  corporations and world leaders, and at we oldsters who have made her world such a mess that she may have no future, to become an effective climate activist with a worldwide following.

 WILL

The problem with getting people to act on global warming, writes Nsikan Akpan in “How Your Brain Keeps You From Taking Climate Change Seriously,”  is that we have difficulty planning for a distant future:Part of the reason it takes us so long to act is because the human brain has spent nearly 200,000 years focused on the present. ‘Find food. Make shelter. Mate!’ We only began to contemplate time, and by extension the future, within the last few hundred years.” 

That is why, in order to develop the will to combat climate change, it is a good idea to focus on particular local losses. 

Climate actions like wetlands restoration, regenerative agriculture, rewilding our own acreage, helping local conservancies keep land from development, petitions for no-drive zones in central cities, and (my favorite) putting seaweed in cow feed to cut down their methane emissions, are so appealing.    

To those of us mired in grief for the natural world, these actions demonstrate our human capability, strengthening our conviction that climate mitigation, if only in these minor ways, is within our technological grasp.

Joanna Macy Ph.D. a scholar of Buddhism, systems thinking and deep ecology, has demonstrated how, when we organize around an immediate local issue and see it succeed in the here and now, that action impels us beyond the despair and paralysis  to engender an “active hope” within and amongst us:

Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act. We belong to this world.” says  Joanna Macy.   

THE SOLACE OF PHILOSOPHY: A WAY TO COMBAT CLIMATE GRIEF

The existentially grim realities that we live with now require a level of personal courage that is difficult to sustain individually. 

Just as it helps to engage in environmental action with an action group, we do well to act from within a philosophical structure, a metaphysic expressing our particular way of looking at our beloved planet so as to grasp the moral requirements of human life upon it. Instead of skittering about in a state of anger, bitterness, and grief, such a philosophical overview (especially one shared with others) endows us with the courage and conviction to pursue environmental action. 

Deep Ecology

While the study of ecology involves the science of biology as an object of human inquiry, Deep Ecology has to do with understanding ourselves as subjectively intermeshed within nature rather than as outside observers.  

Enlightenment philosophy assumes a hierarchy of species, according human beings superior value along with permission to use everything else upon the planet for our purposes.  A philosophy based on Deep Ecology, in contrast, assumes that all life is precious and that that every living thing is endowed with rights; in this context, humans have a moral responsibility not only to do no harm to other species, but also to adjust our needs within nature’s intricately balanced components. 

Or, as Wikipedia puts it, “Deep ecology is an ecological and environmental philosophy promoting the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs, plus a restructuring of modern human societies in accordance with such ideas.”  (Wikipedia) 

You can find Deep Ecology embedded in the mission statements which set forth the foundational philosophies of environmental action groups, notably: 

The Sierra Club’s stated mission is “to explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.”

The mission of The Nature Conservancy is “to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Our vision is a world where the diversity of life thrives, and people act to conserve nature for its own sake and its ability to fulfill our needs and enrich our lives.”  

The mission of the National Audubon Society is “to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the Earth’s biological diversity.”

Eco Theology

A theology is a philosophy grounded in a concept of divinity: EcoTheology, a religious variety of Deep Ecology, is concerned with the relationship between human beings, nature, and divinity; this relationship undergirds the environmental ethics of numerous world religious institutions, for example:  

Unitarian: “We covenant to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  The Unitarian 7th Principle.

Episcopal:  The human body is not a closed or static object, but an open, unfinished entity utterly entwined with the soils, waters, and winds that move through it- a wild creature whose life is contingent upon the multiple other lives that surround it, and the shifting flows that surge through it.”  David Abram, GreenFaith.   

Lutheran: “We can come to know the world as paradise when our hearts and souls are reborn through the arduous and tender task of living rightly with one another and the earth.” Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise.

Catholic: Listen to “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”   “The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains – everything is, as it were, a caress of God.”  Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate.

Judaism (Reform): The Torah commands, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20), and thus, our energy policy must also be equitable and just – and the countries most responsible for climate change should be those most responsible for finding a solution to the problem.   

Hindu: The earth — Devi — is a goddess and our mother and deserves our devotion and protection. Many Hindu rituals recognize that human beings benefit from the earth, and offer gratitude and protection in response. 10 Hindu Environmental Teachings

 Islam: “‘Nature and humans have the same creator,’ argues al-Jayyousi, who uses his position on the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel—part of the United Nations—to emphasize this view to the international community. “This oneness instills a sense of empathy and reason for humans to take care of nature. The Islamic message is not about doom and gloom but rather hope and positive action.”  Austin Bodetti

HOPE AGAINST HOPE: CLIMATE GRIEF DEFEATED

So here we are in the United States, governed by a President in total denial of climate change (with most of his Republican party echoing his delusion) mitigating our puny individual angst by membership in an environmental advocacy organizations and avowing philosophical understanding and ethics derived from Deep Ecology. 

As the second decade of the 21st century begins, we aren’t talking about going back to previous emissions standards but about adjusting to a radically modified environment.  

In a situation where things are likely to get worse,  practical measures set forth in International agreements are an important source of hope.   In 2010 the United Nations established a Global Adaptation Network. In 2015, The Paris Accord created a “Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA) with the aim of:

“enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change, with a view to contributing to sustainable development and ensuring an adequate adaptation response in the context of the global temperature goal.”  

Such a Deep Adaption Agenda, as set forth by Professor Jem Bendell, is “premised on the view that social collapse is now inevitable.”  

Our acceptance that human civilization will be radically altered by global warming leaves us with the question of whether we are faced with total Armageddon – the death of everything on earth – or a survivable catastrophe. 

Before we sink into despair at those grim possibilities, we need to remember that it all depends on who does the surviving, and on what we mean by “everything on earth.”  

We humans tend to think that everything revolves around us; we are hubristically deluded that the age we live in is “anthropocentric,” entirely dependent upon our behavior.  

Deep Ecology teaches us that the relation between ourselves and nature is not a one-way street, however, but a two-way interaction: our carbon emissions intensify wildfires, hurricanes, floods and drought, but these are the result of nature being active in terms of its own processes, responding to what we throw at it.  

While homo sapiens may vanish from the earth, the earth itself will live on. I have a profound trust in the resilience and self-balancing potentiality of nature. As a nature lover, I find (bleak) comfort in the hope that our beloved planet, in its gorgeous plentitude and diversity of flora and fauna, might go on without us.

Will our species really go down in flames, leaving sufficient ecosystems to support some small mammal to evolve all over again?  Although such a dire outcome is suggested by recent headlines, there is also a good deal of speculation that human beings might survive, though in drastically altered circumstances.  

In September 2019 Time magazine devoted a special climate issue to 2050: How the Earth Survived, predicting how we might actually develop the political will, adaptive technology, and resilience to make it as a species.

In the lead article on “How We Survived Climate Change,” Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, writes (from 2050) that “the world has changed forever, but we averted the worst.” 

How did we do that?  

First, he enumerates the low hanging fruit we went for, like electric cars, in-house thermal heat, meatless diets, and retrofitted buildings. Then, he describes how larger scale adaptations became possible after we developed stronger political will in the form of a “green vote” which enabled us to elect officials dedicated to carbon taxes, a clean energy grid, and the prosecution of the fossil fuel industry for its longtime heinous crimes against humanity. 

When I think of facing up to our climate fear and transcending our environmental despair through trust in human resilience and capability, I think of Al Gore, who was among the first to warn us of what is to come and who has remained hopeful about our future. In his contribution to the How Earth Survived Issue of Time, he warns us to “be on guard against despair” which “is ultimately just another form of denial when the future of humanity is at stake.”


Editors Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com.

Featured image: A ‘Blue Marble’ image of the Earth taken from the VIIRS instrument aboard NASA’s most recently launched Earth-observing satellite – Suomi NPP. This composite image uses a number of swaths of the Earth’s surface taken on January 4, 2012. The NPP satellite was renamed ‘Suomi NPP’ on January 24, 2012 to honor the late Verner E. Suomi of the University of Wisconsin.

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About the Author /

Annis Pratt is an environmental novelist and activist living near Detroit, Michigan. She holds the Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and has taught at Emory University, Spelman College, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. You can find her at www.annispratt.com.

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