Whose Apocalypse? The Politics of Grief in the Climate Movement

 
(Source)

Deforestation in the tropics: the end of a world. (Source)

 

Let’s talk about apocalypses of the past.

In 1984, the Bhopal disaster in India killed thousands of people and left over half a million with debilitating injuries. The construction of the Shasta Dam during World War II displaced the Winnemem Wintu people from their homes along the McCloud River to make way for Shasta Lake. Blessing Hands Rock, a sacred site flooded by the reservoir, rises from the icy McCloud once or twice a year, briefly made accessible by a treacherous swim before disappearing below the surface once more. Since 1978, over 750,000 square miles of the Amazon rainforest have been destroyed, entire ecosystems lost to humanity’s hunger for glory.

If an apocalypse is the end of a world, all of these are stories of apocalypse.

The Uninhabitable Earth: Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think.” In a country media-dulled and hungry for cheap thrills, this sort of headline sells.  

When New York Magazine published this David Wallace-Wells piece about climate change’s “worst case scenarios” on July 9, it took the internet by storm. It clogged my Facebook feed: “someone please tell me this is fake news?”, my best friend wrote, tacking on a frowny face.

Chockfull of sordid details and accompanied by photographs of gruesome plaster casts straight out of Mad Max, it’s not particularly surprising that the piece went viral. The word that I read again and again in response to it was apocalyptic. And as we all know, we live in a moment obsessed with all things apocalypse. The end of the world is in vogue.

What I actually found more newsworthy than Wallace-Wells’s publishing success, though, were the big-name climate writers scrambling to do damage control in the mainstream media, on environmental sites, and on Twitter. As if determined to reassure my best friend, they fought the “sensationalist” and “irresponsible” Wallace-Wells point by point.

To me, the most irritating responses were not those that quibbled over data, the exact probability of doom, or word choice, but those that played pop psychologist. Grist.org’s representative comeback was titled, “Stop scaring people about climate change. It doesn’t work.” Dozens of articles like this reassured readers that the worst case scenario is very unlikely – and that we (individually) do have power to stop it by changing our lifestyles.

The sheer defensiveness of some of the climate movement disturbs me. Keep calm and eat less meat? Who the heck are we trying to reassure? Who are we serving? And who are we – which voices are systematically sidelined by the climate movement? Whose apocalypses are overlooked?

I’m not saying that the defiers of doom don’t have a point: when it comes to the climate movement, some messages sell… and some don’t. There’s plenty of research about how what kind of sign in a hotel bathroom will convince more visitors to reuse their towel. But that’s the problem. Why obsess over signage and marketing? Why talk about climate change as if it’s a product? Why act like wheedling salespeople, trying to appeal to the better interests of contented people who actively benefit from industry and capitalism? Surely, we say, the apolitical masses just don’t understand. Or surely they feel paralyzed by guilt or shame, those counterproductive emotions propagated by environmentalists doing it wrong. If we can just make the right headline – or the right meme, or poster campaign, or whatever – we’ll get through to them.

These publications are speaking to the populations that haven’t yet experienced an apocalypse of their own. They’re not talking to people in frontlines communities, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw who have already been forced to abandon their lands on the Louisiana coastline due to rising seas or to dissidents in Honduras, the most dangerous country for environmental activists. Their readership consists of the people who are most insulated from the effects of climate change: mostly white, well-off liberals in the Global North. So the publications are telling these people not to worry – and telling them how to tell each other not to worry.

Why debate about the risks of causing hopelessness? In this dying world, millions of people live with hopelessness. I know intimately how depression and hopelessness can freeze (and seize) an entire person. Mental illness is not an apolitical abstraction: it disproportionately affects survivors of war, abuse, or other forms of trauma and loss. And in a changing world, some communities have already lost much more than others. The Sami, a people indigenous to Scandinavia, have been hit hard by grief:

Half of Sami adults in Sweden suffer from anxiety and depression, says Petter Stoor, a Sami psychologist and researcher. According to his research, 1 in 3 young indigenous reindeer herders has seriously contemplated or attempted suicide. That’s more than double the rate among their Swedish peers. Other researchers have found rates of suicidal ideation to be nearly four times higher among Sami than among other Swedes. For many Sami, suicide offers an escape on their terms from the inexorable force of climate change, which is eroding the traditional way of life in the Arctic.

Grief and hopelessness are consequences of loss. We can’t artificially excise them. When you lose a loved one, euphemisms for death don’t make the grief go away. You can’t talk someone out of pain: the best you can do is talk them through it, accompany them as they grieve. Because of course we’re going to panic and grieve: what greater loss could there be than the loss of a world?

When I say that we must step into that grief, I don’t suggest that we should made a conscious, masochistic choice to wallow in gloom. David Wallace-Wells isn’t the only “downer” I’ve heard lately: in April, Bill McKibben gave a dreary Earth Day talk at my college. At one point, he showed a powerpoint, flipping through pictures of young climate activists in the Global South who’d supported 350. He said (in a sad monotone) that he wasn’t sure if they were still alive.

Afterward, I complained to an acquaintance that I didn’t think that guilt or despair was a solid foundation upon which to build a movement. Do you want him to lie about how bad it is? she asked. I shrugged, not sure how to answer. In retrospect, how silly is it that my acquaintance and I sat around talking about how we should or shouldn’t feel? Feelings aren’t really up for debate.

Those of us insulated from the worst effects of climate change are detached from the pain of the world. Capitalism severs the bonds between the individual and the world. Of course we don’t grieve as much as those who have lost more than us, but what about empathy? Empathy enables us to be with that grief.  

Many people, both organizers and ordinary humans, are already standing in the place of grief: from Standing Rock to Flint to the Alberta tar sands to the Marshall Islands, people – indigenous people, black people, poor people, sick people – are standing in the place of grief. They are living apocalypse: they are living the loss of land, culture, language, community, family – entire worlds. Endangered species are standing in the place of grief, too: right now, one of the last animals of a species is panicking, running madly, trying to find a place to make a home. Would you tell that living creature that it should take a deep breath and stop worrying?

Holding grief does not mean ogling at the pain of others. It doesn’t mean making loud, public confessions of guilt or shame. It doesn’t mean adopting white guilt – or white gloom. It doesn’t mean taking the world on our shoulders or adopting a paternalistic savior complex. We don’t need to perform our emotions. We just need to feel them. And to hold grief, we need to hold it – and move through it – in community.

It’s no coincidence that effective strategies for healing are acts of creation or connection. People heal by outwardly expressing their emotions, by talking to a therapist, writing, making art, or building. People heal by creating rituals that represent their inner worlds, by placing flowers on a grave or saying prayers. People heal through spirituality or religion, by situating themselves within a greater, interconnected world. People heal through spending time with loved ones. People heal through medication, a tool that helps their brains build new pathways and connections. And people heal by trying new things, learning to live in the world differently.

I know that it’s easier said than done. I live with mental illness, which freezes and chokes me sometimes. My understanding and experience of capitalism and climate change didn’t cause my depression, which comes from a tangle of environmental, social, and biological factors, but that knowledge does contribute to my sense of hopelessness.

My parents have decided to install solar panels on the roof of our house. I know that you can’t buy the end of climate change, but I’m grateful that my parents take it seriously enough to make sacrifices and lifestyle changes – and they’re privileged to have the resources to do so. Last week, though, my dad told me that he would have to cut down a cherry tree next to our house to install the panels. The tree has stood there since before my parents built the house. My sisters and I grew up playing under it, throwing hard green cherries at each other, and watching the chipmunks, mourning doves, cardinals, and red and gray squirrels who live in and around the tree. When my dad told me this, my eyes filled with tears. I wanted to say no, don’t do it.

The oil that heats my house through the cold Vermont winters comes from somewhere else. It represents a loss displaced. The electricity that lights my house may come from the Hydro-Quebec project in Canada, where dams devastated entire ecosystems, destroying trees and lands that were sacred to someone else. I’ve never lost a tree before, but that doesn’t mean that no trees have been lost so that I might live.

I grew up building caves out of the high grasses in the fields below my house. Today, I can’t walk through the grass without worrying about the Lyme disease-carrying ticks that have made their way north in recent decades. When I was in elementary school, I’d find dozens of monarch butterfly chrysalises in the milkweed by the garden. I’d bring some to school and hatch them in the classroom. This year, I only saw one butterfly. A woman I know lost her home when her mobile home park flooded during Hurricane Irene. The wealthy town where she lived, which hadn’t installed proper drainage in the park, refused to build any more low-income housing. They put up signs that said, white trash, get out. She had to move away.

These are stories of loss: they’re stories of lost ecosystems, lost homes, and worlds that are wearing away. I live with these losses by organizing. I live with depression by building community. I write, an attempt to generate something good. Connection and reconnection aren’t feel-good apolitical acts; they’re strategies for living after loss. We must embrace these strategies – communally.

Not all of us experience the grief of climate change and climate injustice in the same way: many have lost much, much more than middle class white people from Vermont like me. But despite capitalism’s attempt to atomize us and prevent us from knowing the word ecologically, all of us are losing. All of us have cause to grieve. People in the climate justice movement who do not live on the frontlines of climate change need to stop trying to wriggle our way out of pain. We need to hold grief – and empathy. We need to hold the reality of apocalypse.

The climate movement will never win over all the people who benefit most from capitalism and imperialism. That can’t be its main goal. Consciousness-raising isn’t about marketing – it’s about helping our communities, human and non-human, name suffering and live with grief.

In the response to the Wallace-Wells doomsday article, I see climate thinkers reproducing the logics of capitalism, that system that detaches us and strips away our empathy. Yes, climate groups need to bring people in – but when our kneejerk reaction is to stifle grief or panic, we reveal an unhealthy, privileged, isolationist perspective. Sadness isn’t the end of the world.

In its Greek root, the word “apocalypse” literally means an uncovering, a revelation. This uncovering is always going to be awful. It’s worse than ripping off a bandaid; realizing that our whole way of living is bad for us is more like ripping off a cosmic bandaid. The earth is in hospice, as some participants in an organizing workshop said to me last month. But the revelation – that capitalism and complacency are killing her – is a truth that enables us to imagine new worlds.

 

 

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own. Abby Rampone is a summer intern with 350 Vermont and a 2017 graduate of Williams College, where she majored in Comparative Literature and received a Spanish language certificate. A writer, her work especially engages feminism, environmental justice, and interreligious issues. In the fall, she will move to New York City to pursue a Masters of Divinity at Union Theological Seminary.