“Adversity is the first path to truth”: How climate grief could be the making of us

This article was first published on ABC Religion and Ethics, here.

Gone is the age of natural disasters.

The climate disasters of today are of a profoundly unnatural character. They are the product of pumping the atmosphere full of carbon dioxide, methane, and a litany of other greenhouse gases. The dire wildfires, droughts, and flash flooding we have seen in the past few years are only a taste of things to come.

When confronted with the sobering reality of climate breakdown, it is tempting to give in to one of two impulses. On the one hand, there is the allure of wishful thinking, naïve optimism, and New Age (toxic) positivity. This calls for us to imagine only best-case scenarios. Perhaps, contrary to current trends, those climate models that predict less bad effects will eventually be vindicated. Or perhaps technological innovation will deliver us a panacea that reverses most of the harm of climate breakdown. Or perhaps Just Stop Oil will triumph completely, worldwide, within the next three years. (Yeah, right.)

On the other hand, there is the temptation to embrace doomerism and abandon all hope that we will, or even can, meaningfully turn to address the climate crisis. Perhaps political and economic forces are too firmly entrenched to be moved at all by popular will and protest. Or perhaps human psychology is too stubbornly hardwired to focus on the immediate future at the expense of the long-term thinking required to meet the challenges of the climate crisis. Perhaps people just aren’t any good. Perhaps all the incredible social innovation we’ve undertaken, all the altruism and self-sacrifice, all the beautiful acts and achievements of our species, including those undertaken under severe stress such as in war or disasters, are an illusion. (Yeah, right.)

These two perspectives could not be more diametrically opposed in their treatment of the seriousness of climate breakdown. Nevertheless, they are often rooted in the same profound grief that we feel — if we are awake at all — at what is being done to our planet and our future. This grief can lull us into a distorted view of reality, where either everything is broadly fine or everything is completely irredeemable. Either path leads to the disavowal of our own agency to meaningfully act in midst of climate breakdown.

The uncomfortable truth lies somewhere in between these two positions. And while it is certainly too late to avoid disasters, it is not yet too late to avoid the very worst-case scenarios that climate breakdown threatens. It is not too late to make things less bad. Facing up to climate reality means accepting that things will get worse — and working to build a more resilient society.

As I have argued in my book Why Climate Breakdown Matters, what we need to do is meet reality in all its fullness — and all its uncertainty. Our best hope by far of turning around the current desperate trajectory of our civilisation is to look it in eye, without giving up. Only if we appraise our situation accurately can we act on it adequately; but only if we remain determined to act is there any point in appraising our situation at all. I contend that the “solution” to our predicament is found in staying with the trouble. That the remedy — as Rousseau said — is in the evil. That where the danger is, there too the very saving power lies, as Hölderlin held. That we place ourselves in the best position to cope with adversity if we go through it — and then we can manifest the truth spoken by Gandhi, when he remarked that adversity is the mother of progress.

That’s why I focus on the “negative” emotions we feel when confronted with climate reality — and yet I argue that these emotions may yet be the making of us.

Love is at the root of all aversive emotions. We feel eco-anxiety because we love life. We feel fear for the fate of those who we love. We feel rage at the state of things because of our passion for those weaker or more powerless than ourselves are unnecessarily being put in jeopardy. And we feel heartbreak and grief for what is “lost” and what more will be lost.

Denial is the not altogether unreasonable resistance to devastating loss. It is the motivated rebellion against it. After all, it is not entirely believable what we have lost, and what we are in the process of still losing. It’s hard to credit. It is simply too awful to be believed. But there is another, more authentic form of rebellion than denial. And that is motivated rebellion to stand up for people and planet by protecting what is still protectable and mourning what is lost.

The intimate connection between grief and love reveals just how the process of grief can catalyse us into a state of action. For without love for the planet and its inhabitants, our grief could not tempt us into either the naïve optimism or the doomerist perspectives that cloud our vision of what remains possible. Both are forms of (soft) denial.

But the upshot of all this is that it reveals that the gap between such climate denials and climate action is often less than that between indifference and action. This may in itself be a cause for some non-naïve optimism. After all, if grief — the grief that is hidden by optimism, and that is converted into inaction by a depression that leaves us reassured that at least there’s nothing we can do — is often at the root of both denial and action, then shifting people from the former to the latter is surely an easier task than moving someone from sheer indifference to action.

Why then does grief provoke such radically different responses in people? Well, part of the reason stems from the extent to which grief has become individualised rather than shared. Our society obstructs the collective mourning of what has been “lost” — which is to say, extirpated, destroyed, actively damaged — in our ecology and climate. This makes it harder to understand that the unbelievable nature of the crisis is, in fact, a deeply shameful truth.

By individuating grief in the way we have tended to hitherto, we encourage the fantasies of naïve optimism, doomerism, and outright denial. There is a reason communities come together and grieve when a person passes away. Collective mourning helps us better understand and process the loss. Yet, we do not do the same with the rending of climate and nature. This needs to change if we are to going to catalyse those in the early stages of grief into activists helping to create a better world. We’ve seen the first great signs of such change, such collective grieving, in upsurges like the Extinction Rebellion.

These are dire times. The climate is spinning out of control and our ecosystems are collapsing under the strain of increasingly unnatural disasters. This is not a time for denying our emotions or embracing fantasies of powerlessness. Instead, we need to feel our emotions, share them, recognise the power that courses through them and through our veins, and through our deeper-than-deep connections with each other — and change the world. For good.

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