That moment of humble, powerless unknowing where the sadness of an ongoing loss washes through us and we cannot escape into facile solutioneering, is a powerful and necessary moment. It has the power to reach into us deeply enough to wipe away frozen ways of seeing and ingrained patterns of response. It gives us fresh eyes, and it loosens the tentacles of fear that hold us in normality. The ready solution is like a narcotic, diverting attention from the pain without healing the wound.
The most important lesson to take from all this is that there is no way to confront the climate crisis as a technocratic problem, in isolation. It must be seen in the context of austerity and privatisation, of colonialism and militarism, and of the various systems of othering needed to sustain them all. The connections and intersections between them are glaring, and yet so often resistance to them is highly compartmentalised. The anti-austerity people rarely talk about climate change, the climate change people rarely talk about war or occupation. We rarely make the connection between the guns that take black lives on the streets of US cities and in police custody and the much larger forces that annihilate so many black lives on arid land and in precarious boats around the world.
Whoever the next president turns out to be, her or his term in office will likely coincide with another financial crash, which could well turn out to be much worse than the 2008 debacle. Social pressures from rising inequality and dashed expectations will build to explosive levels. And climate impacts may well take forms that even a Donald Trump cannot ignore. Altogether, the next eight years are unlikely to be as safely corked and bottled as the last. They say crisis is opportunity. We may be facing more opportunities than we know what to do with; may we seize them skillfully!
What we are looking at is a human-triggered extinction episode that will certainly be beyond anything in human experience, and which may rival the great Permian-Triassic extinction event of 252 million years ago. There is even the possibility of Earth becoming completely sterilized, with an atmosphere as overheated and toxic as that of Venus. That these changes are happening does not require prediction, just observation.
Here is what I want everyone in the climate change movement to hear: People are not going to be frightened into caring. Scientific evidence-based predictions about what will happen 10, 20, or 50 years in the future are not going to make them care, not enough. What we need is the level of activism and energy that we are seeing now in Flint. That requires making it personal. And that requires facing the reality of loss. And that requires experiencing grief. There is no other way.
It is hard for us to take in the reality that the earth is an extinction machine. It doesn’t need us, and we cannot control it. The “ecological crisis” we hear so much about, and which I have written so much about and worked to stave off—well, who says it is a crisis? Humans do—and educated, socially concerned humans at that. For the earth itself, the Holocene Extinction is not a crisis—it is just another shift. Who determined that the planet should remain in the state in which humans find it conducive? Is this not a form of clinging to mutable things, and one that is destined to make us unhappy? When we campaign to “save the earth,” what are we really trying to save? And which earth?
“This is the first time we’re set to reach the 1C marker and it’s clear that it is human influence driving our modern climate into uncharted territory,” said Stephen Belcher, director of the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, said. “We have passed the halfway mark to the 2C target.”
Never in the history of our species have we so desperately needed to engage in conscious grieving. Not only are we carrying decades of our own grief, but we almost certainly are carrying the grief of past generations and the grief of other species. In fact, I believe that other species are asking us—perhaps even begging us to grieve their losses. When he is able to grieve, says Weller, his ability to feel this planetary pain “puts me back in a profound state of relatedness to where I live, to the watershed, to my home.” (143-144) Some may assume that given the state of the planet, grieving is pointless. Yet The Wild Edge of Sorrow asserts that, “…we have to keep some sense of our deep soul obligation to the planet alive, no matter if we are leaving. I feel it is an imperative that I do whatever I can to register the sorrows of the planet. We have to remember that much of the grief that we are feeling isn’t ours. It isn’t personal. We are literally feeling the sorrows of the watershed.” (143-144) In fact, the entire Earth community has a right to our bearing witness to their losses.