Climate Grief

Since the publication of the most recent IPCC report, I’ve been asked three times about 'climate grief'. The frightening reality of inaction on climate change has once again flooded the mainstream psyche. The hope that it will unearth a fresh narrative that might finally compel the more reticent audiences to act, flares briefly. And then slowly dims to darkness, once again.

Meanwhile this resurgence of awareness combines with an overwhelming sense of impotence among those concerned about climate change. What can we do in the face of such an immense mortal challenge? The anxiety has nowhere to go, except deep into our terrified Amygdalae. 

Knee-jerk responses are drawn from the classic range of coping strategies. Distraction, avoidance, denial, projection, cynicism, dismissal, Panglossian glee… But they don’t work anymore because they have been worn thin by the relentless bombardment of data. They have been exposed for what they are; short-term, shallow and ultimately ineffective. They do not address the causes of the anxiety.

This is the point where the overwhelm kicks in. The tsunami of fear hits the shallows and swamps everything in its path. We find ourselves lifted into the deluge, awash in the illimitable unknown. We are overcome by the unthinkable loss that we - our children, other species and ecosystems - will experience if we do not take immediate action. A loss that many feel is now unavoidable.

Grief is the ‘normal process of reacting to loss’, especially death. But what happens when it’s on a planetary scale? There is nothing normal about the loss of a viable biosphere - this type of grief is new. It needs working with in ways that transcend personal coping, toward some kind of collective response - a cultural healing. We cannot cope alone and we are only going to survive together.

I’ve found a few things that really help with grief, beyond acknowledging that it exists, or identifying its stages. They are based on brutal personal experience but I feel they are equally applicable to grief on a planetary scale. They sound simple in themselves, perhaps even over-simple. But like Zen Haiku, on deeper inspection they can invite a fundamental shift in our ways of being in, and responding to, our world.

Time

Time must be made to let the tsunami take its course, wash itself out and recede to shallows. Our poor tired Amygdalae need a chance to communicate with the rest of our bodies, so that we can get beyond panic and into something more fruitful. Fight-or-flight is great if you’re being chased by a lion but not so helpful if the threat is long-term - and complex beyond all prior human experience.

It doesn’t feel like we have time to just stop, given the IPCC report. But in fact we always have some time, however short. If we don’t use it wisely we may remain paralysed in primal response mode - and waste whatever is left. 

Sharing

We need to find a place to share our deepest feelings with each other. This means listening as well as finding our own voice. We need to be able to express our feelings so that they exist beyond us, out in the open, where they can be seen and faced. In sharing them we avoid having to face them alone.

Humans create meaning by naming the world around them. Sharing our experiences and insights help us make new meaning. Something we need to do very quickly indeed.

Sharing about ourselves with others is also tribal, it creates a sense of identity based on belonging to a community. This forms a powerful foundation for taking and sustaining action.

Intimacy

Intimacy rewards us for being vulnerable, without which there is no hope of authentic relationships. These, in turn, are how we foster empathy - the greatest survival tool of them all.

But intimacy isn’t only to be found in human relationships. We must also become intimate with the more-than-human world - with the rest of nature. This is intrinsically therapeutic on a personal scale, as the new emerging field of Ecotherapy testifies. But severing these relationships in the first place, losing empathy with the natural world, neglecting to be intimate with our own habitat, is why we find ourselves in this current global crisis. Intimacy works on every scale, with every relationship.

As these processes unfold, grief can be bound gently back into each of us. It can be allowed to become part of who we are - and to permute into a powerful source of resilience, action and leadership. Equally, if we don’t engage with grief, we become increasingly traumatised by it, trapped in cycles of short-term coping - until we are finally unable to respond at all.

The truth is that we just do not know what is going to happen. The IPCC do not know, the deniers do not know, the not-for-profits, the media, the politicians. No-one knows: that is the nature of complex nonlinear systems, like a planet’s climate. And anyway, humans do not have a very good record of predicting the future, even with all our apparent cleverness.

There is now no point in rhetoric about “too late” or “not possible”, no point in arguing the merits of hitting targets moving rapidly towards us through time and mass-media. Fear by degree. 

There is just this simple equation made proof by the mathematics of chaos theory. That every single thing we do now, no matter how big or small - personal, community, corporate or state - every positive act will translate into a life saved, human or otherwise.

So work deeply with climate grief - as a source of transformation. And then just do whatever you can: it all matters.

Photo: Isaac Cordal's Berlin installation, 'Follow the Leaders', 2018.
Acknowledgements: Rosie Walford, Mary-Jayne Rust & Robbie Breadon.

7 Comments

  1. Deborah Mendes10th March 2019

    I am really loving seeing you take the lead in this conversation. We do need more discussion and community so feelings can be shared. The best way to create change is when we it is heartfelt.

    Reply
    1. David Key11th March 2019

      Thanks for your comment Deborah.

      I’m not really taking the lead! This article was a response to some recent experiences of a couple of colleagues but there is quite a bit out there already, esp. around Climate Trauma and Eco-anxiety. It is an important conversation to be having as you say, so the more that gets written about it the better.

      Reply
  2. Trudi Macagnino15th December 2018

    Thank you for these wise words, Dave. I feel lucky to be living in Totnes where this sort of grief is understood and there is the opportunity to support each other within our community. Extinction Rebellion as a movement seems to getting some traction here – have you heard about it?

    Reply
    1. David Key17th December 2018

      Hello Trudi!

      Thanks for your comment. I have heard of it but don’t know much about it. It’s great to see stuff being made more conscious. Scary times though…

      Reply
      1. Trudi Macagnino17th December 2018

        Hi Dave

        Yes, scary indeed. Here is the link to Extinction Rebellion website. It is worth watching the film on the home page – its about an hour long.

        https://rebellion.earth/

        Wishing you a Happy Yuletide in spite of everything.

        Warm wishes
        Trudi

        Reply
  3. Cathy Mayne30th November 2018

    Dave, wise words and much appreciated. I have struggled with deep grief at the state of the environment for years, as you know, but have few strategies to cope with it, other than continually returning to the nature we so savagely destroy. Acknowledging my fears and airing my frustration, anger, resentment and anguish helps too, but we lack mainstream fora where it is okay to air these feelings. It’s more than time to change. But thank you for writing about this, helping to get it out into the open.

    Reply
    1. David Key30th November 2018

      It’s lovely to hear from you Cathy! Thank you for commenting and adding your voice. I’ve had a big response to this article via lots of channels and it’s opening up some important conversations. What I am finding though, is that I no longer have a response when people ask me what I think will happen with climate change.

      We’re off the map and most of all we need to support each other, whatever happens.

      Reply

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