Keynote address presented to Facing Ecological Grief at Simon Fraser University, April 29, 2023
I don’t know how you all build community, but planning conferences like this is one of my favorite ways! Planning this conference has been a joy. I am very grateful to Naomi Krogman, Paul Kingsbury, Laurie Anderson, Laurie Wood, Candace Ratelle-Le Roy and Chelsie de Souza for believing in this gathering. I am also grateful to all of you, who trust us enough with your day to come and sit and talk.
But I am not just grateful to you. I need you. We are going to need each other to weather the coming age. I am not sure if what we are witnessing is a death rattle or a birth pang. Perhaps, both. What I am going to do is outline some perspectives on ecological anxiety and grief. Not as a psychologist but more as a cultural and spiritual activist.
I want to gesture towards an engagement with grief that holds all the wonderful and terrifying tensions that are building in our time. I don’t come to grief as a problem to be solved. A symptom to be alleviated. A neurosis to be alchemized into action by positive thinking.
Rather, I want to suggest that grief is more like an art form. Grief is a skill. I would even say that grief is a companion or a friend.In the arriving age, we need movements and justice and policy and technology. We also need practitioners of what I call grief-craft: Midwives and storytellers and artists and chaplains. So let’s talk about our time of trouble with no easy answers.
A Litany of Bad News
Because I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the world as we know it is ending. There has been a steady litany of troubling news from policy experts and scientists. There has been a litany of pleading for change from the world’s religious leaders, environmentalists and Indigenous communities. Listen to a few of these actual headlines from my newsfeed in recent weeks:
“Temperatures in 2023 could be record breaking with rapidly developing El Niño.”
“We are not the first civilization to collapse, but we will probably be the last.”
“Living sustainably isn’t just a trend, it’s a necessity.”
“As 1.5 degrees looms, scientists see growing risk of runaway warming, urgent need to slash emissions.”
“Climate diplomacy is failing — but we need it to survive.”
“Catastrophic warming will claim lives without action.”
“Ocean currents could collapse this century.”
“Oceans littered with 171 trillion pieces of plastic.”
“Record deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon a challenge for incoming president.”
“Extinction crisis puts one million species on the brink.”
“Scientists deliver ‘final warning’ on climate crisis: act now or it’s too late.”
Of course, there is lots of good news peppered in there too! Deforestation rates have slowed, nations are committing to more protected areas, or even that the garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean is enabling novel marine ecologies! But these days the scales seem to be tipped toward the catastrophic. We know there are still several pathways forward. But as the weeks and months pass, fewer and fewer of these pathways exclude a great reckoning with massive ecological, cultural and spiritual losses. This litany of troubling headlines can trigger in me a deep well of anxiety and anticipated grief. But what’s worse is that most of the time the sheer quantity of bad news results in numbness to feeling anything at all. (It also helps that the next frame is usually a tree or a cat or someone falling or a brand-new baby!)
So, while there is no longer any uncertainty about the reality of anthropogenic climate change, it is not certain what kind of world our children will inherit. While passing 1.5, 2 or even 3 degrees warming will not be the end of the world full stop; this does not resolve a sense of dread about how bad things are and will continue to get. How much loss will the coming generations have to metabolize? How many species, whose evolutionary lineages span millions of years, will be put to an end? As psychologist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “at the end of uncertainty comes the uncertainty of the end.”
For me, this uncertainty at the end of the Holocene climate invokes a buzzing anxiety. Ecological Anxiety is typically defined as a state of worry about the future that invokes feelings of sadness, despair, anger, helplessness or hopelessness. Mental health and therapy circles have been talking about climate and ecological anxiety as an impact or symptom of the unfolding crises. This clinical approach tends to revolve around adapting one-on-one therapy models to equip individuals with more tools for coping with their climate-induced emotions. But anxiety is a completely normal response to an unfolding crisis.
Anxiety is as much a signal being communicated from the heart of the world as it is a complex of subjective emotional responses. So rather than just coping with symptoms, deep attention to all of our feelings is an important part of engaging with anxiety related to the ecological crises. In her book Generation Dread, Britt Wray writes, “Despair and fear are not inherently bad. Hope and optimism are not inherently good…. We must move from an either/or to a both/and model. There is meaning in every emotion.”
There is a powerful practice here which is borrowed from Buddhist mindfulness. Anxiety is not best dealt with by insisting that I think positively or try to just focus on feeling gratitude. As Alain de Botton writes through his School of Life organization: “Peace of mind doesn’t come from hoping for the best; it comes from close attention to the very worst…”
A common misconception in discussions of climate anxiety and grief is that this is primarily a concern of the privileged, global north. However, psychologist Susan D. Clayton and co-authors which included Britt Wray have shown, young people in the global south self-reported negative emotions related to climate anxiety at a higher rate than those in the global north. Their essay published in the peer reviewed journal Sustainability analyzed the data from a survey of 10,000 young people between the ages of 16-25 from ten different countries. For young people all over the world, climate anxiety is impacting their ability to function on a daily basis. In Western countries however, self-reported impacts averaged around 45% whereas in the countries from the global south it was closer to 75%.
These findings reveal the obvious: Those closest to the front lines of these unfolding crises are most impacted by them. This is also the case for the far north. As the research of Ashlee Cunsolo, Dean of Arctic and Subarctic Studies at the Memorial University of Newfoundland shows, Northern and Inuit peoples are on the front lines of ecological anxiety and grief in an ecology that is seeing rates of warming four times higher than the global average. One of Cunsolo’s research partners, an Inuit Elder remarked: “Inuit are people of the sea ice. If there’s no more sea ice, how can we be people of the sea ice?”
In a civilization that has perfected the art of either or, the media often presents us with two responses to the unfolding crises. The first is Climate Doomism which believes it is too late for any meaningful action. The second is a Hyper-Optimism that includes the belief that the more we do the better chance we have of fixing all the world’s troubles.
American writer Roy Scranton, in his book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene writes, “The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.”
Scranton frames himself as a climate realist, rather than an alarmist or reactionary. In my view he is more motivated by his anti-capitalist politics than a healthy realism about the future of the earth’s climate. Swedish academic and activist Andreas Malm, himself a Marxist scholar, calls Scranton’s book a reification of despair. This means that too often the Doomist view risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy that frees its adherents from any responsibility “in the meantime.”
But there is something else going on here too. Having frequented environmentalist circles and taught in universities in different parts of North America, I worry that a contributing factor to the Doomist mentality is the belief that our species deserves to go extinct. It is imagined that perhaps the earth community would be better off without us.
This intuition is actually a kind of self-hatred that appears among some settlers and progressives. Some days, I empathize. But I worry that we will not bother building the foundation for a world that we don’t believe our children are worthy to inherit.
Rather, with scholar Lyla June Johnston, who has Navajo, Cheyenne and European ancestry, I believe that “Human beings are meant to be a gift to the land.” Human extinction would be as tragic as passenger pigeon extinction or monk seal extinction or tiger extinction or orca whale extinction. Human beings emerged from a mesh of ecological brilliance; and there is a place for us in the web of life so long as we can stop techno-industrial civilization from unraveling it completely.
On the other side of this false choice is what I am calling Hyper-Optimism; which feeds a well-intentioned fix-it mentality. All of us struggle with finding meaningful ways to take action. But this urge is so powerful that we sometimes demand ten ways to take action, before listening to what’s really going on. Fed on a sugary diet of can-do’s, many activists throw their lives into the work and end up burning out in a few years. In his excellent book Earth Grief, Stephen Harrod Buhner reflects, “Activism is an institution that compulsively seeks to heal the world’s pain rather than feel it.”
Of course, he (and I) are not against action, or activism. We worry that a compulsive activism, fueled by urgency but also by guilt, can end up bypassing the necessary work of processing our feelings of fear, anxiety and grief. Some of this hyper-optimism is also deeply rooted in the modernist humanism which created these crises in the first place. The so-called techno-optimists, sometimes referred to as Eco-Modernists or Pragmatists, promise us that we are one technological breakthrough away from solving the climate crisis. Geoengineering, carbon credits, carbon capture and de-extinction will allow us to finally usher in the ecological utopia we have been dreaming of. I am very often tempted by their promises myself. Boosters of this approach are not so shy about suggesting that soon we will be managing every aspect of the planet’s biosphere.
There is, I think, a middle way between Doomism and its self-hatred and Hyper-optimism and its over-activism. Ecological Grief is part of this middle way: Grief work engages with complexities and uncertainties. As Donna Haraway writes, it’s part of the work of Staying with the Trouble. As an analogy, perhaps rather than franticly thrashing around in the dark to find the light switch, we might sit still for a moment and let our eyes adjust.
Topographies of Grief
In his book about the death phobia that pervades European descended North Americans, Stephen Jenkinson offers a novel description of grief: “Grief is a way of loving what has slipped from view. Love is a way of grieving that which has not yet done so.” The famed psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed a typology for the stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining, and finally Acceptance. This has been a helpful tool for individuals coping with a terminal diagnosis or the death of a loved one. But as the illustration on the right shows, there may be a common definition of grief, but there is no common experience of it.
We began today with a land acknowledgement. And every land acknowledgement brushes up against a deep well of historical trauma and grief. To speak of ecological grief as an emerging phenomenon is absurd without first acknowledging that it is a present reality for so many. As Indigenous scholar Kyle Whyte writes, “In the Anthropocene, then, some indigenous peoples already inhabit what our ancestors would have likely characterized as a dystopian future.”As a philosopher, Whyte has theorized an Indigenous ethic of sustainability and spiritually appropriate science. He also amplifies the many examples of Indigenous communities that are restoring ecological and cultural connections to place and species despite the heavy losses wrought by colonial violence and erasure.
To some extent, all our bodies carry the grief of our ancestors. But the topography of ancestral grief is anything but flat. The collision of colonial, racist, gender-based and species-ist violence with ecologies and Indigenous bodies, black bodies, brown bodies and women’s bodies shape the contours of the topographies of grief like tectonic plates. Some are subducted under the enormous weight of oppression, while others are lifted to greater heights of privilege and social mobility.
Ecologies of Grief
Humans are not alone in feeling grief over lost loved ones. There are cultures of grief woven through the earth community. Fellow primates express grief and may even have a form of ritual. For example, chimpanzees have been observed ritually cleaning the fur of a dead loved one. Elephants are well known to reverence the dead and even to handle their bones. And closer to home, J35 was a Salish Sea resident mother Orca who carried her dead newborn with her for over 17 days.
Psychologist and writer Andrew Solomon writes, “To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who despair at what we lose.” Most of us have felt that icy absence of a partner, a loved one or a pet from our homes. We have walked around familiar places after a divorce or tough break up and felt both cherished and painful memories.
There is an ecology to our grief that is at once a response to loss within the web of our relationships, and the slow composting of loss into new life that finds a way to keep going. Grief after the death of a loved one is learning to inhabit a new interpersonal landscape, a rearranged social ecology. Paraphrasing writer and mythologist Sophie Strand, “Each loss opens a wound and a song in the Animate Everything.”
Zooming out a little, loss is also an integral part of the earth’s ecosystems. But on the ecological level, the long-term effects of loss are more difficult to judge. By this I mean that ecosystems are not nouns they are verbs, they are not things but events. Ecologies are adept at reorienting around loss and forming new processes and pathways. Afterall, with hindsight, I am incredibly grateful for the many losses that melted the glaciers that once covered this very spot and made way for lush rainforests to grow.
Death and loss are not separate from change and life and birth. The good earth subsumes interconnection and rupture, balance and imbalance. If you go into a forest and only see what is alive, you are only seeing half the picture. So, to my fellow environmentalists, if all we see when we look at changing ecosystems is loss, then we are not seeing the possibilities that change might afford for fostering novel relationships that are regenerative.
But do not get me wrong! I am not saying that actually, loss is just change, let’s accept it. There is a massive work of discernment here! It is true that a fear of change makes me allergic to loss. So, engaging with ecological grief helps me become better acquainted with loss and death. But ecological grief, as contemplative as it is, is not quietism! It is not a resignation to whatever may come. If grief is a way of loving, then I am not afraid to admit: We still have a lot to lose! This is going to mean that grief-craft is not just the skill of accommodating loss and tragedy. It is not passive or reactive.
As the twin sister of love, grief teaches us to accept loss when it comes, yes it does. But a love-bound grief is also willing to resist the losses that should not yet be let go of! In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road we read a grueling and gritty thought experiment with a stripped-down sense of human purpose. In the novel, a man and his son stumble through a post-catastrophe landscape scrounging for food and avoiding roving bands of cannibals. The man’s only purpose is to see his son survive. His son is deeply committed to an objective sense of the Good. He carries with him the flame of hope that some day a better world might exist. At the end of the novel, McCarthy warns us against inheriting a world that is starved of life and beauty. He writes,
“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”
We have a lot to lose, and I do not want to make meaning with the scraps of a once beautiful world! I want to live in a world that teams with life and love and beauty. And yes, even in that world that we all know is possible, grief will not disappear. On some deep level, I know that to love is to risk great suffering.
Building on this idea that love grows out of the rich compost of grief, University of Washington scholar Jennifer Atkinson writes that, “Grief is strength in these times. Burying our emotions might shield us for a while, but grief keeps us in contact with truth, and beneath everything, it opens our eyes to the profound love we feel for the fabric of life that’s under threat. Grief is a direct expression of connection—a pain we could never feel if it weren’t for the depth of our love. And more than cheerfulness or stoicism or more information, it is love that will move us to fight. No scientific report or technological innovation will ever match that kind of power.”
So being willing to risk the deep wounds of grief might give us a fighting chance. And that, my friends, brings us to Hope.
Litanies of Hope
Writer Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark is a powerful meditation on the complexities of history and the power of collective action over the long term. Solnit argues that Hope is active, but it does not die when things don’t turn out the way we expect. Hope is a stance of openness to the possibilities that uncertainty may bring. It is a posture of prayer. Hope is what got me out of bed this morning. Hope is what led Britt Wray, the author of Generation Dread, to the decision to have a baby despite her deep fears for the future. Hope is what is blooming all over Vancouver right now. Hope is what brough the goldfinches and chickadees and sparrows to my bird feeder this morning.
For these reasons, I appreciate Stephen Harrod Buhner’s reflections. He writes, “Hope is a quiet, enduring, persistent thing. It is not filled with the excited, uplifting, future-oriented energy of optimism. It possesses instead a slow-moving groundedness, an enduringness, a solidity, a nowness. It isn’t going anywhere, it just is. It’s a form of faith, a faith that comes from life itself.”
Hope is our animal soul’s very breath! There are dozens of projects, workshops, circles, art exhibitions and gardens that are engaging with the skills that accompany what I am calling grief-craft. Projects that are exploring the personal and collective depths of ecological grief. Francis Weller’s book The Wild Edge of Sorrow outlines many ways of engaging with grief through ritual. And groups in Iceland and Switzerland have already held public funerals for glaciers that are melting out of existence. A woman named Gabrielle Gelderman who lives in Edmonton, Alberta has begun using the title of Climate Grief Chaplain. In Victoria, a small collective of artists has started a magazine called Solastalgia which aims to be a resource for art, movement building and grief-craft. (I’ll explain this word in a moment.) There are earth hospices, good grief networks, grief circles and climate cafés being explored all over the world, online and off.
Just to highlight a few more of my favorite projects: Participatory artists Heidi Quante and Alicia Escott founded the “Bureau of Linguistic Reality”. This project solicits new words that express worries and the textures of our unfolding reality. They took inspiration from philosopher Glenn Albrecht’s neologism Solastalgia which means Comfort-Pain, was imagined to get at a pervasive uneasiness about the losses our home places are incurring. This word has spoken to thousands of people from Appalachians fighting against mountain top removal, to the Inuit peoples witnessing the rapid warming unfolding before their eyes. This is a powerful reminder that cultivating a love for our home places is not just for good days. Placefulness, as I call it, is also about loving our places after they have been clear cut, or on the days that wildfire smoke is turning the sun orange and we cannot breathe.
Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects began as a pioneering method for processing movement and ecological grief. Her cyclical, almost liturgical practice, encourages us to return again and again to gratitude. Then, turning our attention to honoring our pain allows us to see the world with new eyes. And even after one hundred burn outs, doing so enables us to go forth. To say with Samuel Becket, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” In a way, I structured this talk around this liturgy of hope: Gratitude, pain, new ways of seeing and the ways we might go forth from this conference.
Trebbe Johnson, a former wilderness guide, has started an organization called Radical Joy for Hard Times. Through annual Earth Exchanges, she invites us to love wounded and neglected places with simple acts of beauty. In a similar act of beauty, on June 16, 2017, during a Save the Arctic Campaign Ludovico Einaudi’s played “Elegy for the Arctic” before a calving glacier. This was of course primarily a public awareness campaign, but it reminded me of the famous epigram from German playwright Bertolt Brecht who wrote from exile, “In the dark times will there be singing? Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times.”
Ecological Grief is deeply personal, but we also need ways to express collective grief. I am open to ideas. Even bad ones! Perhaps we could create rituals that honor the losses we are too numb to feel. Perhaps we could sing our grief together and walk our grief together and dance our grief together. Or, perhaps we could experiment with nurturing trees and plants that are adapted to warmer climates. The many projects popping up all over the world help me to see that grief is not the opposite of hope, it is its pollinator.
Just as death is a mirror that we hold up to life to see how precious it is; grief is a mirror that is held up to love to feel how risky it can be. Public intellectual Cornel West once said that “justice is what love looks like in public;” well, my friends, if that is so, then perhaps what love feels like in public, is grief. And perhaps that is what storyteller Brother Blue meant when he said, “My heart is broken. I never want it to mend.”
Thank you for listening!