An atmosphere of grief
We are living through the sixth mass extinction, due to climate change and ecological breakdown. Collectively, we are experiencing unprecedented change and decline within a short time, with visceral feelings and experiences of grief and loss.
However, rather than simply despair in the face of extinction, these experiences of loss, and the resulting collectives forms of mourning are an important transitional step in a changing world.
Although, the scale and depth of change is unique, we have gone through transitions like this before. In Part 1 I described how bad things were. In Part 2, I described how we’ve been here before, and how people have responded in the past.
In this third and final essay, I’ll unpack some of the fundamental framings of grief and loss in the age of the Anthropocene, and put forward some (perhaps) difficult propositions, but with the aim to help us find solidarity and community through collective mourning, in a way that respects and honours our own and other cultures and histories, and enables us to move to another state of being — together — in the face of possible extinction.
The planet, and everything on it is changing. We are living through a unique period of acceleration and collapse, where the natural systems of our planet are transforming in front of our eyes. The rapid transformation of just about everything in our world is causing many people to experience various forms of grief for what we are losing and have already lost.
In many ways, this climate grief is the most human aspect of climate breakdown. Some animals — dolphins, elephants, whales, birds— mourn the loss of family members like we do. But no animal has the awareness of the vast global ecosystems of Nature the way we do. It’s a unique human trait, enhanced even more so humans living in a globalised, networked age.
But what do we mean by Nature? Well, simply everything on this earth: the plants, animals, the landscape, which includes all the various large, small and microbial ecosystems within which they all live and exist.
Humans are a part of Nature. The breakdown of the climate, of ecosystems, of land and atmosphere is existential because we are a part of Nature. Climate change could end life on earth. And so if Nature dies, we die.
Yet, this assertion reveals a schism of thought we have in the world. And a first set of provocations for you.
On the one hand there is the prevalent and contemporary industrialised, techno-capitalist worldview. He says: Man is effectively outside of Nature. We have conquered it. He believes he can exceed its boundaries without risk to himself.
In short, if nature dies, we can survive.
This attitude can be best and simply expressed through the renewed fascination and investment in space colonisation. Think of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, and their concentration of wealth, energy and time into projects to colonise nearby planets and set humanity up for interplanetary exploration.
You can trace Elon Musk — with the 21st century privatised space exploration and 20th century American/Soviet space race —back to Nikolai Fedorov (1829–1903) and Russian Cosmism, the philosophical and cultural movement that emerged in Russia in the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Fedorov outlined a project of human immortality achieved by technological means.
It involved quite literally resurrecting all human ancestors (starting with Adam and Eve), controlling all the destructive forces of nature (including death), and exploring and colonizing all the stars and planets in the cosmos. It may seem bewildering to hear it put like that, but it is deeply infused in our worldview.
But this industrialised attitude to overcome death, and overcome the death of nature — to assert that it can be avoided, solved or escaped — is totally at odds with the world we live in now. We are living in a world of emerging ecological crises that cannot be reversed. Yet this techno-capitalist worldview is grounded in denial about the reality of climate breakdown.
We know the capitalists of the world are denying climate change. They’ve been doing it for decades. They deny the extent of loss now, and in the future. They deflect any counter-argument for corporate purposes, and distract us with tokenistic changes. However, underneath these classic PR tactics of denial, distraction and deflection there is something more elemental going on. The techno-capitalist — and by extension everybody— is driven by the fear of death. Ernest Becker, as ever:
“…the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity — activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for men.”
But why are industrialised cultures, and the techno-capitalists denying death? Because of the trauma of loss.
For these cultures and nations — from North America, Europe, Eurasia, Australasia etc — there is a history of huge intergenerational trauma, in large part due to the wars of the 20th century, and economic hardships that preceeded and followed them (but also for a hundred other smaller reasons). It is from that disturbed soil in which millions of people were raised in. We are still feeling its effects today.
Firstly, what do we mean by trauma? The psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk says that he has “learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.”
Many nations and people have failed to deal with the past, which limits their ability to cope with the future. They have blinkers on, refusing to look their past in the eyes. In previous generations, this was not a mass-scale problem, and so didn’t take root in the same way. But the problem is compounded when that unanswered, unresolved trauma, is handed down to future generations.
“A collective complex trauma inflicted on a group of people who share a specific group identity or affiliation — ethnicity, nationality, and religious affiliation. It is the legacy of numerous traumatic events a community experiences over generations and encompasses the psychological and social responses to such events.”
—Historical trauma in American Indian/Native Alaska communities, Thomas Evans-Campbell (2008)
For one generation of people the trauma of the World War was infused through them, creating out-sized and potentially devastating effects. They are the baby boomers, and they deny death big time.
The world’s Baby Boomers — the generation born out of the ash and rubble of the second World War—are old.
They going to die soon, and they are terrified. Their terror has huge implications for the rest of us.
Boomers are the rulers of the world. They hold all the assets, wealth and influence. They are also the change makers. No generation has made such an imprint on the world as they have. Which means they embody a transition from death being forbidden, to death being spectacular.
They are helping move away from the taboo of death: death as something never to be discussed. Something to be hushed up, hidden.
They are making death something more pervasive: their death will be not be so hidden, but will be presented in the open, for all to see.
Yet it will still be built on a foundation of denial, marking it as a contradiction. This powerful generation of people struggle to make sense of their end of life, desperately pushing against the natural order.
This is important because we if can view climate breakdown through the lens of Baby Boomers, we can see they are unable to accept that life goes on beyond them. Baby boomers reconcile their death by taking the rest of the world with them.
Or as Ayn Rand put it:
“It is too bad that the world will end and I think it is a very wonderful world that ends with me.”
But the world is not ending just because they are.
Humans are a part of nature. Nature will not die. It is just humanity that will die. Life will go on beyond us.
This relates to this schism I mentioned earlier. This reconciliation that nature is not dying, it’s just man’s ability to live in it, ties to a philosophy of thought that exists broadly outside industrialised nations.
In communities, nations and people where indigenous philosophies and cultures still exist — the most elemental philosophy of which we call ‘animism’ — there is a far more integrated attitude towards mankind and its position within nature.
“For animists there is no such thing as ‘nature’; there is only a diverse community of variously interacting relations — some more intimate and more immediately present to us than others.”
— Animism and ecology: Participating in the world community, Graham Harvey (2019)
’Animism’ allows us to understand that the world is a community of persons, most of whom are not human, but all of whom are related, and all of whom deserve respect.
I believe we have to reconcile the schism between industrialised, death-denying, man-separated-from-nature belief systems, and other indigenous knowledges that acknowledge and accept man’s relationship within something-like-nature.
But how? Quite simply:
- We need to reclaim any and all old knowledge that we’ve forgotten, that tells us how we die, and how we are situated within a natural system that may have no place for us in the future
- We need to rapidly de-colonise the histories and practices that warp our understanding of those activities
- We need to respect each others histories and practices as all being inherently human and valuable
I bring up this contrast between industrialised and indigenous knowledge and perspectives, for the following reason: Many people — the indigenous communities of the world I mentioned last time — are the biggest communities grieving the biggest losses of nature. Campaigners like Greta Thunberg and the youth activists of the world are protesting the destruction of their future. These are linked.
Many people—and an increasing amount of people—are grieving the loss of our ability to hunt, farm, live, and exist in nature now, and in the future.
Nature itself is not dying. It is too complex, multi-varied and interconnected to simply ‘die’ (Clearly, many elements of it are dying: thousands of species are disappearing, and most of the natural world is in one way or another threatened). But it is not the loss of Nature itself we grieve.
What we fear and experience as wrenching loss and grief is because we know our ability to live within Nature is dying.
This causes us such existential pain, and exposes one important element around climate grief by most people, that these feelings are totally unacknowledged.
For indigenous communities, it is following the trend of their needs and beliefs, and cultures being systematically oppressed and undermined.
For industrialised communities and nations, to grieve for the loss of humanity’s future in nature comes up against the idea from earlier: most people believe we are above nature. Outside of it.
To mourn something: a mountain, a river, an ice shelf… it can be viewed by many as totally bizarre behaviour.
But this exposes a second important element: Because many people believe we are essentially outside of nature and outside the chain, we can save it.
We can save it like a firefighter attempts to save the forest by hosing down a bush fire. Or a surgeon attempts to save a patient by operating on metastasising cancer.
This belief, that we can save something, through various heroic means, is what can be considered in another field, as something extreme: a futile intervention.
Consider the Earth, as a complex living organism.
Its lungs are failing: the world’s forests are being destroyed, burned, cut down.
Its body temperature is rising: the global mean has already increased by 1 degree, and current projections put it at 4 degrees. The majority of its mass (water) is holding all that temperature. It’s cooler parts are melting at a rapid pace.
Its body is filled with toxins: microparticles of plastic found in almost every region on earth, not least the countless millions of litres of oil, chemicals, and pesticides that enter our waters.
These are generalised statements about the state of the world. But if you carry them together, compile all these ailments together, and you can see how the body of the Earth is in peril.
Taken by themselves, they are indicators of poor health. Together we know, we feel, that without oxygen to breathe, without water in the right places, with toxic material in all our food, the conditions for our life on this planet are disappearing fast.
Then we can come to a grim conclusion:
Climate grief — the feeling of insurmountable loss — is an anticipatory expression of the awareness that humanity is terminally ill.
This is not the same as wider Nature. Life will continue, over billions of years, building itself from the carbon dioxide environment and melted glacier waters. But we will not. We’ve lived an accelerated life of excess, pushed existing natural systems to breaking point whereby we cannot live as a part of it.
But what do we do when we find ourselves pushing natural systems to their breaking point? We keep going.
In our culture here — this neoliberal, techno-capitalist society — when faced with a terminal disease, we often will seek life-sustaining treatments, to extend our life, with burdensome interventions that more often than not come at the expense of any good quality of life.
Think about brutal chemotherapy that cancer patients with metastatic cancer may undertake to get a few months more life. Think about the rib-cracking, body bruising resuscitation that doctors will do on an 80-year old grandmother whose heart failed because of old age.
We can consider how this attitude can scale up to cope with the death-denying, existential terror we feel about humanity’s terminal state on Earth.
We have incredibly skilled and motivated engineers focused on geo-engineering such as cirrus cloud thinning, sunlight blocking, marine cloud brightening, carbon dioxide removal, and stratospheric aerosol injection.
These futile interventions — wrought by people who believe we are somehow outside of Nature, who think that we can heroically reverse the catastrophic transformations that the same attitude created—are indefensible.
The denial of the truth—that contributes to people’s suffering, as their grief is left unanswered, unacknowledged and left to traumatise others—is indefensible.
However, there is an alternative: If a person has a terminal disease, they need palliative care.
Humanity has a terminal disease. We need planetary palliative care.
Change and transformation is a normal part of the ebb and flow of planetary life. However, the Anthropocene has accelerated ecological change and ecosystem collapse from a timeframe of millions of years to hundreds of years. We’ve gone from change occurring at a geological time, to change visible in human time. Quite poignantly, taking a palliative care approach to the level of humanity can fit to a human lifespan.
Planetary palliative care would help us primarily with the experience of climate grief, but would extend much further than that. It can provide a radically different approach to the problems of planetary crisis.
It is helpful to first ground this in the existing concept of palliative care. When applied to individual people, it is an approach that improves the quality of life of people and their families facing the problem associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering.
It is used by healthcare professionals, carers and families around the world, as a counterbalance to the persistent pursuit of curative treatments and cessation of illness. Palliative care accepts that whatever illness or disease you have, you cannot be cured of it, and the focus is thus on supporting a person through their disease, to the end of their life, whenever that may be.
Crucially, palliative care is not necessarily at the end of life, but always when the disease or condition cannot be cured.
So what happens when you use a palliative care approach?
Palliative care is holistic. It incorporates physical, social, psychological and spiritual elements of humanity. It includes yourself and others, before and after you: your ancestors and successors. It makes space for grief and loss, and accepts it as a part of the process.
Palliative care can enable you to live for longer. In the experience of providing early palliative care to people with metastatic non-small-cell lung cancer, it led to “significant improvements in both quality of life and mood [compared to aggressive care].” (source: Early Palliative Care for Patients with Metastatic Non–Small-Cell Lung Cancer, NEJM (2010).
By reducing the exposure to difficult, painful and risky interventions, a person can sometimes find peace in the time they have left: they are in hospital less, hooked up to fewer machines and medications and able to focus on their remaining time. This in turns has the effect of lengthening their life and improving the quality of that life.
Palliative care places a most important human activity at its centre: care. To nurture, support, love each other is the most important part of being a human. We are the most advanced animals in the world, but are also deeply, fundamentally social ones. We need space for pain to be heard, to be recognised by others around us. As a medical or professional specialism, this underpins its entire existence and provides a simple framework to which we can scale more compassionate approaches to climate change.
Palliative care allows you to use your grief. Dr. Paul Moon wrote in ‘Grief and palliative care: Mutuality’ that “some grief experiences can palliate future grief experiences; lessons learned from one loss can activate existential changes in a person that provoke life pattern reformations, which can subsequently impact that person’s grief reactions to loss in future.” This is key to supporting a transition from individual to collective or planetary palliative care: we might be able to use the grief we feel to support and help others in the future.
If we are to foster a planetary palliative care approach to the terminal illness that blights humanity that causes us such grief and pain, what is required of us?
Taking a whole view across this essay, and the previous two. It feels like our tasks come down to the following:
- Accept reality. As Colin Murray Parkes wrote in his book Bereavement. “we may choose to deal with our fear by turning away from its source…. But each time we do this we only add to the fear, perpetuate the problems, and miss an opportunity to prepare ourselves for the changes that are inevitable in a changing world” . A key task for all of us to do, is to do the difficult work to accept that our days are eventually numbered: both individually and collectively. This is the first, and hardest task.
- Confront the past, and attempt to reconcile various trauma. For anyone who has been the victim of abuse, violence or other trauma, the life-long suffering that stains a life should never be underestimated. This is even more so for those peoples, communities and cultures who have faced centuries of it. (Since the original writing of this lecture in January 2020, the world has erupted in a most chaotic but empowering way to try and reconcile much of the historical injustices that plagues our Western histories. This feels still like an emerging awakening, and time will tell how the reconciliation will unfold). In the context of climatic change and confronting the past, there is a potent example from 1992: On the beach where Columbus landed in the Bahamas, a group of ecologists gathered to ‘’’conduct a funeral ceremony for the natural environment of the Western hemisphere. They mourned the demise of the New World’s natural heritage and the eradication of entire groups of indigenous Caribbean people.” What other rituals and events are necessary to help us reconcile with the past, and how might we do it?
- Reclaim ancestral rituals. Today in the dominant western culture people find it hard to imagine grieving sincerely for someone they may not have met — a key element in grief that transcends time and space as climate grief does. However, this degree of empathy was an intrinsic part of a vocal ritual artform called keening. Keening was performed at the wake or graveside in mourning of the dead in Irish and Scottish communities up until the early 20th century. Keens are raw unearthly emotion, spontaneous words and repeating motifs, with crying and elements of song. Such ritualistic behaviour is still seen in other cultures, and we must be cognicent to not perpetuate extractive, adoptive practices that diminish indigenous cultures. Keening is one example from a Irish/Scottish perspective, but what others are out there, ready to be re-discovered, that draw upon your own ancestors and communities?
- Create new ones for our times. We are living through unique times, with at times, no possible comparison in human history. Old traditional practices may not be quite suited to the demands of the 21st century, and so we must devise our own. As Phyllis Windle points out in ‘The ecology of grief’, our conditions are unique: “environmental losses are intermittent, chronic, cumulative, and without obvious beginnings and endings.”
- Reconnect with others. Much of the problems of grief, loss and depression are grounded in human connection, and lack thereof. We so need to be connected with others, and when we cannot, the pain can be unbearable. As Bessel van der Kolk notes: “being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.” We must take every meaningful opportunity to (re)connect with others when facing changes such as ours. To try and do it alone is simply folly and we diminish ourselves all the more for it if we try.
- Reconnect with non-humans and natural phenomena. Much has been written and (re)discovered recently around the life of plants. Stefano Mancuso, as a leading plant neurobiologist has consistently documented and explored how plant life is often as rich and complex as our own. Paul Stamets has dedicated his career to reversing the ignorance around the fundamental role that mushrooms and their mycelial foundations play in the natural ecosystems. There’s so much to be said on the matter, and we continue ignore our earthly neighbours to our detriment. In the realm of grief and loss, our non-human neighbours can offer support. They can perhaps even show us things that we cannot, connect us to other ways of being that transcend our individual perception, and connect us to something larger. During interviews with people living with terminal illnesses who took part in psychedelic therapy research using psylicoybin (magic mushrooms) one person remarked: “I now have the distinct sense that there’s so much more, so many different states of being. I have the sense that death is not the end but part of a process, a way of moving into a different sphere, a different way of being.” What else can plants and mushrooms teach us about how we might live through this Anthropocene, this age of grief and loss?
This last essay in the series takes a purposefully philosophical turn, to open up the conversation and thinking around what it means to grieve for our way of life, our planet, our home.
I do believe that instead of despairing in the face of extinction, these experiences of loss are an important transitional step in a changing world. There is always hope.
I hope these essays can support the discussion about how we might ‘use’ climate grief as part of a larger movement towards integrating loss as part of our collective decline in a natural world. I hope we can continue this discussion, and take some of these ideas further.
Feel free to contact me, if you’d like to talk about it more.