Three people kneel on pavement.

Climate activists stage a sit-down protest on Lambeth Bridge in solidarity with the nine Insulate Britain campaigners jailed three days previously by a High Court judge on 20 November 2021 in London, United Kingdom.

(Photo: Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)

On Climate: Grieve, Cry, But Don’t Give Up!

Grief calls climate activists to embrace the most difficult challenge: to fight to save as much life as possible and—hopefully—to restore some of what’s gone.

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from the book, Facing the Climate Emergency, Second Edition: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, set for release on May 30, 2023 from New Society Publishers.

It’s seldom discussed outside a therapist’s office, but grief is the best method we have for reacting to losses and adapting to new realities.

Therefore, once we face the truth and feel our feelings associated with the climate emergency, we must allow ourselves to experience and work through our grief. Grief is painful, but if we stop ourselves from feeling it, we stop ourselves from emotionally processing the reality of our loss. If we can’t process reality, we can’t live in reality: We become imprisoned and immobile.

Grief ensures we don’t get stuck in denial, living in the past or in fantasy versions of the present and future. Think of the widower who cannot acknowledge the death of his wife, who cannot cry, and who never cleans out her closet. He remains suspended between the past and his fantasy version of the present. Because he can’t grieve, he can’t adapt to his new reality and cannot find any satisfaction in what is a new—if unwelcome—stage of life.

The depth of my grief was a direct response to how connected I am—and want to be—to the living world. It gave me a new breath of life.

According to Joanna Macy, an environmental advocate and spiritual teacher, we must grieve to accept the reality and pain of loss. In her book, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We Are in Without Going Crazy, Macy writes that grief follows from a heart that has been broken by loss. The initial task of our grief is simply to help us accept the actuality of the loss, to face the truth. The second task of our grief is to allow ourselves to suffer, to feel the agony of what we have lost, which helps us understand the meaning and depth of our loss:

When we feel this emotion [of grief], we know not only that the loss is real but also that it matters to us. That’s the digestion phase—where the awareness sinks to a deeper place within us so that we take in what it means.

Macy argues that we acknowledge reality through grief, that grief helps us to “find a way forward that is based on an accurate perception of reality.” When we refuse to grieve what we have lost, we lose the opportunity to celebrate and honor what we love.

I went through several months of intense grief as I was facing climate truth, and I continue to grieve. I have cried many times; I cried about my fears for myself and my family, for the starving people in the Global South and right here at home, for the gorgeous species that are going extinct. Feeling grief reinforced my recognition of the seriousness of the climate emergency and the seriousness of our collective loss. But grief did something else, too. It reminded me of how much I love this world. The depth of my grief was a direct response to how connected I am—and want to be—to the living world. It gave me a new breath of life.

This makes grief not only worth experiencing but worth honoring. We’ve lost so much. Millions of people have already died because of the climate and ecological crisis, mainly because of hunger and infectious diseases. Most are among the world’s poorest people. We grieve them because they matter.

It’s not just humanity that has been lost. Biodiversity—the riot of life—is also being speedily destroyed. We have already seen thousands of species slip into extinction. The species that still exist are rapidly losing numbers. Nisha Gaind, reporting in the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2016, writes that the population of vertebrates has declined 59% since 1970. These losses are accelerating.

… Do you feel that pain? I think that you do, though it may be too diffuse and unnamed to notice.

I specifically recommend you try to get comfortable with crying. This is often challenging, especially for those who have been taught that crying is a sign of weakness or that it signals an inability to cope. But crying is a specific act of emotional recognition and response; it is powerful, healthy, and necessary. It provides an outlet for all the grief and pain inside you, helping link the emotional and physiological. When you cry, you release toxins and stress hormones from your body.

You must grieve the people and biodiversity we’ve already lost and the lives we lose every day. You must grieve the future you’ve dreamed of. Only then will you be ready to move into action.

Simply giving yourself permission to cry freely can be a tremendous relief and can allow you to gain access to other repressed or ignored feelings. Further, crying plays a critical social function, communicating to others, such as your friends and family, that you could use their comfort and support.

We must decide that these losses deserve to be remembered, felt, and mourned. We must recognize that only by grieving these deaths and extinctions can we fully process our pain, honor our loss, and enable ourselves to engage in the reality of our already-diminished collective.

I must point out that grieving is not the same as giving up. There is a strain of climate “doomers” who say that humanity and the natural world are a lost cause. They believe that our Earth is in hospice and we should prepare it, and ourselves, for death. These doomers see their current calling as simply expressing their grief and persuading climate activists that they are high on “hopium.”

While doomers understand the need for grief, they misunderstand grief’s purpose. They use grief and loss as an endpoint, an excuse for inaction. But we can’t just grieve. In this moment, we are called to do something very different: In the immortal words of labor organizer Mother Jones, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living!”

Climate activists know that our mourning and loss is neither a reason to give up nor evidence that we have surrendered. Instead, these feelings reinforce our ties to humanity and life. The grief we feel reminds us that nothing is more precious than life. The grief calls us to embrace the most difficult challenge: to fight to save as much life as possible and—hopefully—to restore some of what’s gone.

When you acknowledge that we are facing a climate emergency and allow yourself to feel the all-encompassing grief for what we’ve already lost, you also begin the vital work of re-establishing your visceral and intimate connection to all life. Even though we’ve been taught to view the natural world as fundamentally separate from humanity—a “resource” for our use—and to ignore our fundamental connection to the other living beings of the planet, our relationship to humanity and the natural world is our spiritual birthright. Macy cites Zen Buddhism to argue for the necessity of the connection.

The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh was once asked what we needed to do to save our world. “What we most need to do,” he replied, “is to hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.” The idea of the Earth crying within us or through us doesn’t make sense if we view ourselves as separate individuals. Yet if we think of ourselves as deeply embedded in a larger web of life, as Gaia theory, Buddhism, and many other, especially Indigenous, spiritual traditions suggest, then the idea of the world feeling through us seems entirely natural.

This is a very different view of the self than what Macy calls the “extreme individualism” that “takes each of us as a separate bundle of self-interest, with motivations and emotions that only make sense within the confines of our own stories.” When we throw out the lessons of neoliberalism and instead allow ourselves to face the truth of the climate emergency and grieve its associated losses, we begin to hear the Earth’s story, which is a story of our interconnectedness.

Climate activist Vanessa Nakate, founder of the pan-African Rise Up Movement, which demands an end to new fossil fuel infrastructure, and calls for climate finance support and disaster relief, told me something similar. After describing her experience visiting famine-stricken regions and meeting a young boy who died soon after, Vanessa told me, “I think all climate justice activism is about love. Otherwise, you would just act for yourself. Climate activism is motivated by love and hope.”

You, too, must grieve. You must grieve the people and biodiversity we’ve already lost and the lives we lose every day. You must grieve the future you’ve dreamed of. Only then will you be ready to move into action. In this way, you can turn grief into power rather than stay stuck in paralytic despair.

By grieving what we have lost, we free ourselves to take joy in life again; not all climate emotions are negative.

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