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Grief will be our companion in climate change

Grief will be our companion in climate change

Aug 21, 2016 - 8:59am

In this series of posts, I bounce off key arguments in my new book Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene. re-conceptualising human-nature relations. The second chapter of the book argues that grief will be our companion in our climate change journey.   We in the affluent west are grieving for the loss of modernity and its investment in a future characterised by hope. Various manifestations of loss and mourning in relation to climate change are discussed in this chapter, particularly the idea of everyday denial. I build particularly on the work of Kari Norgaard (2011), but there are a number of other scholars now writing about these issues. It is difficult to discuss grief and associated negative emotions because of strong cultural pressure to be optimistic and positive. More open acknowledgement that grief will be our companion will strengthen our collective capacities. Since I finished writing the book, Australians have witnessed two particular manifestations of loss and mourning. Last summer weeks of catastrophic fires damaged Tasmanian World Heritage forests, heathlands and peaty soils. For those who loved the forests and understood their many thousands of years of history, it was devastating to contemplate that we would not see their likes again. University of Tasmania fire ecologist Prof David Bowman was compelled to farewell Gondwana. ‘Because Gondwana can’t live in this sort of world.’ In a public lecture Bowman discussed the philosophical rupture being experienced by the community, including long-time activists: 'The belief was that all a wilderness needed was to be left alone, that now it would be safe within the confines of the park', Bowman says. 'And we’ve all just realised that this isn’t the case.' This is the “rupture”: the realisation that all that we thought was “saved” is now threatened by something previously unimaginable. (quoted in Gill 2016). A couple of months later, as coral reef scientists mapped unprecedented bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, Professor Terry Hughes tweeted the grief of his research group. We looked at the data, he said. ‘And then we wept’. I’m not sure whether Terry Hughes meant it literally or not, but these are difficult issues to discuss in contemporary western society. I have learned that this topic can shut down a dinner party conversation rather rapidly, and have become selective about engaging different friends on the question. We debate climate change at length, mostly framed in the spurious terms of whether the science is settled enough for us to make some long-term decisions. Even those who know the science most intimately face strong social pressures to be optimistic about the future. There is deep cultural pressure in the West to not be ‘a doom and gloom merchant’. So, even when the evidence points towards the strong possibility of some catastrophic scenarios, the tendency is to focus policy and action on the most optimistic end of the spectrum of possibilities. But at least some of us should be thinking systematically about worst-case scenarios.   If we have at least the possibility of catastrophic outcomes, what should our response be? I reject the cultural assumption that even to canvass these issues is to give in to them, to give up, or to assume the worst. Rather I argue that a relentless cultural disposition to focus disproportionately on positive outcomes is itself a kind of denial. I argue that grief is a companion that will increasingly be with us. It is not something we can deal with and move on from, but rather something we must acknowledge and hold if we are to enact any kind of effective politics. Or, to put it differently, it needs to become an explicit part of our politics. I gave a seminar on this topic at Sydney Uni this week, as part of their Welcome to the Anthropocene series. It was the kind of stunningly beautiful late winter Sydney day that makes you wonder how anything could possibly be wrong with the world. There was great discussion from the floor. How much is our grief tied up with shame? What exactly are we hopeful of, and can a clearer discussion of this help us move through crisis? What kinds of rituals and/or activism might be appropriate expressions of loss and mourning? Museums, cultural heritage professionals and creative artists are well placed to lead us in these discussions of memorialization. In an apparently unrelated event of the week, my sister and I took Mum, an accomplished patchworker, to see Making the Australian Quilt at the National Gallery of Victoria. It is a poignant and beautiful exhibition showcasing the skill and labour in this most everyday activity. I was struck by the lives measured out in millions of stitches and captured for us here. Lives mostly, but not only, of women. The exhibition is a memory and a mourning of sorts. But it also encapsulates something of the concept of hope that I come back to in later chapters; making do, repurposing with beauty and wit, keeping on going.    References    Gill, N. 2016 Rupture in Tasmania: Solastalgia and the impact of the recent bushfires. The Monthly, April. www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2016/April/1459429200/Nicole-Gill/Rupture-tasmania Norgaard, K.M. 2011 Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.    
Hope and Grief launched by PhD scholar Elissa Waters

Hope and Grief launched by PhD scholar Elissa Waters

Aug 14, 2016 - 9:49am

I was honoured to have University of Melbourne geography PhD student Elissa Waters launch Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene this week. As the book is focused on the future, I hope it will resonate with the next generation of scholars. Over the next few weeks I will be blogging on individual chapters. To get you in the mood, here are Elissa's words:  Welcome everyone and thank you very much for the opportunity to introduce Professor Lesley Head’s new book – Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene: Re-conceptualising human-nature relations. It’s been a real pleasure reading this book, although I have to say it has at the same time been a somewhat confronting experience. This work is fundamentally about the emotional aspects of the problem of how we live, work and look to the future in the Anthropocene – the confronting part of reading this was the realisation that where I sit on the hope-grief spectrum is something I’ve been studiously avoiding for quite a long time now. This avoidance of the base emotional response was also reflected in many of the interviews of climate scientists in this research. As geographers, both human and physical, much of our work revolves around the key issues of the Anthropocene - the complexities of human-nature relations and the looming realities of the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change. If we really consider these realities, if we take them seriously in our lives and our work, how do we actually carry on? My (fairly unproductive) response to that question so far has involved a lot of red wine! Thankfully though, Lesley’s book encourages us to take a far more sophisticated approach to living ‘with and through the Anthropocene’. A key argument of this book is that grief is fundamentally entwined with climate change, and for us living in this time means that “grief will be our companion” – grief is not something we can get beyond but has become part of our lives and politics. Conceptually the book unpacks the idea of grief in this context, arguing that we are grieving for both the loss of our ‘Modern Selves’ and for the nostalgia of a ‘pristine past’. It follows then that hope is the flip side of this emotion, and as the book points out, there is real pressure in the Western world, particularly in climate science to present a hopeful outlook to avoid being a dooms-dayer. One of the most refreshing things about this book is the fact that it argues precisely against this conception of hope - it maintains that we need to decouple hope from an optimistic view that everything will be ok. From my perspective as a postgrad heading into this field of geography in the context of climate change, this point is crucial – that we can be hopeful in the practice of our work without ignoring, disingenuously, the more painful possibilities of climate change. In that context this book is an exploration of how a focus on local, vernacular practices may serve to reframe human-nature relations and provide space for more hopeful ways to generate new political possibilities. This idea is drawn out through a range of cases that span the broad scope of Lesley’s empirical research in: agriculture; climate science; invasive species research and urban geography. From a methodological point of view, like much of Lesley’s work, the book makes a strong case for qualitative social sciences and for the value of a cultural geography lens on the emerging narratives of the Anthropocene. That said, I think the key arguments of this book and its explicit attention to the emotional work that we do in this field are really relevant for both physical and human geographers and I’d encourage everyone to read this – particularly those of us that are prone to resorting to wine to cope! I’ll leave the introduction there and ask Lesley to come up to say a few words - So thank you everyone for coming and please join me in congratulating Lesley on the official launch of this important and timely book.
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