Updated: Oct 22, 2021
Climate change is advertising its disappearing act.
Birds, plants, amphibians, people, cultures, ways of life, “charismatic megafauna.” The pika up high, and the salmon down low. People of the ice, people of the sea, people at the end of a long line of growers. The powers of a changing climate are challenging our resilience to loss. Personally, I ache at the thought that the kids I don’t yet have might not play in the snow all winter long. Late summer thunderstorms are a cherished memory of my childhood—blue sky turned dark gray and then back to evening blue all in an hour’s time. But in many parts of the world, the late summer sky goes from blue to dark gray to red and stays red for weeks as massive swaths of forests burn. Climate change threatens to disappear the intimate emotional experiences by which we relate to our biological world.
Somehow, when I read about the losses in other’s lives, it creates hole in my chest from something gone missing that I never even knew was there. I read about lost languages, and it hurts. I have spent very little time near to Gulf of Mexico and I know very few people who live in the Gulf states, but when I read Jack Davis’s The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea I feel heartache for the fish, invertebrates, birds and landscapes that were erased from the Gulf. I have never been great at letting go, so maybe this is an unsurprising emotional response for me. Most days it motivates me, but some days it feels too heavy.
The grief I feel for ecological loss is the root of my biggest fear associated with climate change.
I fear living in a world where ecological losses have led to a grieving, shamed, debilitated people. I fear a world full of grief in which we are unable to move, collectively, from grief to mourning to action because we are crippled by guilt. Then, with the perpetrators and only potential redressers (that’s us) disengaged, our ecological state will only worsen, piling on the guilt and grief. It’s a scary picture.
Dr. Tim Jensen, a trusted advisor and a brilliant scholar, traces the phenomenon of environmental guilt in his book Ecologies of Guilt in Environmental Rhetoric. The book has helped me put words to my fear and to understand its validity. He uses the phrase “environmental melancholia” and cites the work of Cunsolo and Landman in Mourn Beyond who write that humans “may be ‘frozen’ or otherwise arrested…in a form of perpetual, unresolved mourning.” As I read Tim’s chapter, Guilty Grief and Ecological Mourning, it was as if my fears were being mapped for me in legitimizing scholar-speak. But then, Tim offered an alternative. There is another pathway from grief and guilt, one of emotional work, in which we harness our guilt and grief and recognize them as manifestations of care and love. Instead of avoiding these emotions which we perceive to be negative, we can frame guilt and grief as teachers and allow them to help “orient us toward love, care, and connection with the ecosystems that sustain us.” We become activists and protectors of life.
From what Tim writes, I can imagine a pathway away from a grieving world. I offer some steps to you:
1) Work to understand the emotions of grief and guilt associated with environmental loss, learn from them
2) Save all we can
3) Mourn what is lost
4) Always re-engage
I look around me, and it is gorgeous. The creek curves and bubbles along. If it were warmer, I might plunge in at the little spot beside the fallen tree where the water looks at least up to my waist. Daniel is not around, but if he were, I would turn to him and say, as we do, “we are so lucky.” And he would respond, in an intonation opposite whichever I chose, “we are so lucky.” The gratitude we feel, when our eyes bounce around our tranquil back yard or scan the mountain range in full view 60 miles away…it is not internal to either of us. The gratitude vibrates between us and makes palpable our inseparability from the stellar jay in the hazelnut tree and the glacier we pray remains come September. Gratitude shared helps to move us to save all we can and always re-engage from our moments of mourning.
This week, tell us what the pathway I suggest means to you. What can help you to move along it? Are you able to recognize your own feelings of environmental grief or guilt? What work do you need to put in to transform those feelings into productive action or recognize them as love and care? Send your responses to email@example.com with the subject line “Meet- when I fear climate change” by August 20, 2021!
Some gratitude- this week I have to express gratitude to the water protectors in Northern Minnesota fighting to stop the construction of Line 3. They are an inspiring example of what it means to act with love and care in response to feelings of grief. If you haven’t heard about the battle surrounding Line 3, check it out at stopline3.org.