Grief will be our companion in climate change

Aug 21, 2016 - 8:59am

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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.




 Gill, N. 2016 Rupture in Tasmania: Solastalgia and the impact of the recent bushfires. The Monthly, April.

Norgaard, K.M. 2011 Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.



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