Remaining at the present level would imply a continued carnage at the "commodity extraction frontier" until so little is left that eternal warfare and collapse are inevitable. (Remko de Waal/Getty-AFP)

Embodying Climate Grief, a Conversation With Climate Activists

There is no "the environment"—we are the environment. As we treat each other, so we treat the world.…

A conversation between National Academy of Sciences fellow Dr. Sarah Myhre and National Poetry Series winner Teresa K. Miller on bearing witness to the climate crisis through science and storytelling.

Teresa K. Miller:
The last time we saw each other was at our high school graduation in Seattle, where we delivered the introduction together as a kind of call-and-response poem. We didn't cross paths again until this year, when a mutual friend tagged us both on Twitter. In the meantime, I earned an MFA in poetry and became a writer and editor, and my undergraduate degree gave me a grounding in primary source research and environmental data analysis--just enough to be interested in and not intimidated by the studies behind the headlines and policy proposals. My creative work often exists in conversation with my environmental and food activism experiences. You pursued a PhD in climate change and oceanography and now run Rowan Institute, which emphasizes climate leadership and communication. Feminism and social justice are central to your climate work.

Even though our titles and day-to-day experiences are quite different, I sense a resonance between our pursuits--we're tackling stewardship of the planet with an eye to storytelling, or storytelling with an eye to stewardship. I often see my creative work, unlike the advocacy I've done, as bearing witness rather than trying to persuade anyone or fix anything directly--but I still find there's power and responsibility in choosing which narratives to assemble from the overwhelming stream of data, anecdotes, noise, and, increasingly, fear and despair. I'm curious what you see as the most essential narratives in your work right now.

Dr. Sarah Myhre:
These conversations between domains, spheres, or spaces--across creative and culture work into science and analytical approaches--are really nourishing and grounding for me. I hope to understand the tension between bearing witness through creative work and advocacy as a form of activation and power-building. They aren't the same and yet seem to be in a dynamic relationship within the individual.

In my earlier career, I worked as a research diver in the tropical Pacific and Atlantic oceans, with a particular focus on coral reef ecosystems and health. Of course, what I saw and documented underscored the larger planetary story of ecological disruption and climate change--many times, our data were horrific accounts of ecological loss. We "documented the decline," and it was dehumanizing to be obligated to maintain a "professional distance" from the implications of the work. How do you make sense of such experiences as an early career professional?

I have just never been comfortable sitting on the sidelines and objectively documenting the burning of the world. As a scientist, this discomfort has forced me to come to grips with the fact that quantitative work is simply not enough, or sufficient whatsoever, to understand how to live in a climate-changed world. Yes, let's decommission coal plants, green the energy grid, and deconstruct the power and profit model of fossil fuel companies, among the many structural and institutional aspects of climate action. But advocacy for infrastructure and energy systems doesn't address the grief, uncertainty, and reimagination of living on an imperiled living planet.

So, there is huge, huge importance in the culture work, the creative work of bearing witness and making sense and meaning from the loss of the world as we knew it to be. Does that resonate for you, in the work you've done as a storyteller and poet?

Yes--sitting on the sidelines while the world burns is not in my constitution, either. I tried different ways of being "part of the solution": reducing my individual environmental footprint, cleaning up and regreening degraded patches of land, helping people in my city (Oakland, at the time) access healthy food. These actions marginally decreased my drop in the bucket of the overarching problems but didn't, on their own, solve anything. I started writing and editing for advocacy organizations, figuring that helping disseminate research through clear narratives could reach more people than a sliding-scale produce stand (though I kept picking kale for that, too). Such organizations have their place, but the work also risks calcifying through sound bites and sloganeering; it's not the whole picture.

So then I, an unbaptized agnostic with a sarcastic streak that runs deep and wide, find myself approaching these cataclysmic changes from a metaphysical or spiritual angle--something that speaks to the grief and uncertainty you mention. Bearing witness matters because truth exists regardless of denial or despair. It's always there waiting for us.

The truth is, in September 2020, my home of Clackamas County, Oregon, had an air quality index over 500--so bad it was literally off the charts--and my partner and I packed up the car as we obsessively refreshed the wildfire map to see if our evacuation zone status was changing. In February 2021, a historic ice storm knocked out our electricity for six days and some of our neighbors' for twice that. People in more rural areas had no water because their well pumps had no power, and some froze to death or died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Then, in June, the Portland metro area broke its all-time temperature records three days in a row, the final one at 116 degrees, and more people died. Crows and flickers sat in a stupor on our meadow, tilted their heads toward the sky, and panted. That's the truth, and there may ultimately be no redemption in the suffering--but it was also more moving than any graph or bumper sticker or white paper I've ever seen, which holds a strange kernel of hope alongside the terror and rage.

You've written, "The true acceptance of loss requires a brave integration across that deep, black ocean of pain" and "grief is an open door." Have you found ways to walk through it this past year and a half--with smoke in the air, the Pacific Northwest heat dome, and people running around refusing to take the most basic steps to protect each other from a deadly illness? Sometimes I think I'm walking through, and other times I realize I'm just approaching another threshold.

Well, no. I have been walking into wall after wall after wall with the climate crises and the pandemic these last 18 months. For me, there is a difference between knowing something from the neck up, versus knowing it from the neck down in a more embodied way. I have learned a lot, from the neck down, because of the pandemic and the heat-dome event of this summer.

So, I really do resonate with this idea that there is a through line or deeper truth about bearing witness right now. I remember driving south on I-5 in the heat on June 28, 2021--the day thousands of people across Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia would die--and looking down the line of the Cascade Range. I did not recognize the mountains. The landscape was boiling in the summer solstice sun, and you could see it shimmer and distort from the heat. I was in my car with my kid, my partner, and our two cats--and we were driving, literally fleeing, the heat of the interior of Whatcom County at my folks' house to reach the relative security of our air-conditioned apartment in Seattle. The precarity of the moment is just enough to make me physically nauseous, if I really feel into it.

I did write "grief is an open door" and did so during the time when I was grieving the end of a marriage. I hadn't, prior to that time in my life, been catalyzed into speaking directly about my own grief as a climate and ocean scientist. I'd compartmentalized, but then, through having my personal life detonate, all the walls of separation fell down. I matured into a deeper relationship with grief and was no longer able to sequester parts of myself away from each other.

Now, I'm exploring your writing, realizing more clearly the focus your work has had on the process of grief, environmental loss, and bearing witness. It brings up a lot of questions for me, many I want to pursue through reading your new book Borderline Fortune. I'm also curious about your process: How did you get to the point where you knew you needed to use creativity to express these truths about living on a living planet? And how did you get brave enough to rely on creativity and language to talk about climate and environmental loss? How do you think about connecting intergenerational stories about our relationships with the land back to family or personal histories?

It's refreshing to hear a scientist talk about the importance of transcending emotional compartmentalization. There's certainly nothing in the essential pursuit of external knowledge that dictates we must renounce the signals and wisdom arising internally, but academia often encourages living like a bodyless brain in a jar. In my experience, there's a lot of inadvertent gaslighting that results from emotional disconnection and failing to integrate the knowledge of the head and the body. I think denial is more commonly a subconscious coping mechanism than an intentional con; when we face something too horrifying to comprehend in the moment, our brain puts it away to keep going forward. Left unchecked, though, denial projects a whole hologram universe over the surface of the truth, a common experience in family systems dealing with addiction and mental illness. That was a theme in my own extended family system growing up and a launch point for writing this current book, Borderline Fortune.

Such survival mechanisms are sometimes necessary in the short term, but they're toxic in the long term. I'm not sure if I was intentionally brave so much as I finally realized truth has a physical sensation very different from denial or rationalization. I want to disrupt the self-perpetuating avoidance and unreality, which requires clarity rooted in listening to the body. It requires grief, a process of evolving and resolving--as opposed to trauma, a state of imprisonment in past experience. In thinking about how family systems can inadvertently perpetuate harm, I realized no one person invents the rules--they come into being over years and generations. These systems develop their own gravitational field. The same is true of our current intertwined economic, social, and environmental dilemmas.

Borderline Fortune is a collection of poems, not a political tract, but it posits we cannot heal ourselves without healing the planet, and vice versa. I found an entry point through ice. In the Pacific Northwest, the land is still incrementally rebounding from the glaciers of the last ice age. My great-grandparents inherited the post-Industrial Revolution from their parents. One of my paternal great-grandfathers taught on INGaliq (Little Diomede Island) in the Bering Strait from 1907 to 1909--as a teacher working for the U.S. government, he was part of the settler-colonial enterprise, even though I don't think he realized it at the time and even though he was personally a committed socialist who desired to be of service. Back then, people could walk across miles of winter ice from the island to Wales, Alaska, to get letters from the mainland and hunt. A little over 100 years later, the sea can crash against the shore in February, its melt further upending millennia-old ways of life. The ecological crisis represents part of my inheritance.

We must feel those changes--what's been lost and what we have left to lose--if we hope to persevere with any kind of productive response. Of course, grief in this context is challenging because it's a moving target, continuing to unfold on the scale of cataclysm--but I still believe witnessing can help transcend traumatic imprisonment and reconnect us with our agency in the current moment. I don't know of a better alternative.

How do these issues intersect with the work you're doing through Rowan Institute and the book you're writing for Columbia University Press? Can you say more about what those endeavors entail and what you want them to achieve? If you could wave a wand to get more people feeling and moving in the same direction on these issues, what do you see as the top priorities for what we should do?

The ecological crisis represents part of my inheritance too, and I appreciate that framing because it calls into question our responsibility within the settler-colonial system of oppression. I don't shirk from the consequences of that framing, because within it I can be truly grounded in place and know who I am. Similar to your family history, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Richard Stretch literally colonized West Seattle. He platted the roads and named them California and Alaska in homage to his previous geographic conquests. The man was a Quaker, a pacifist, and a keen naturalist who thought slavery was abhorrent, yet he also sat on the sidelines of the Civil War and wrote prolifically on his views of "sanitizing and improving" land away from indigenous sovereignty.

There is no "the environment"--we are the environment. As we treat each other, so we treat the world; sacrifice zones and sacrifice people. In the colonial and petro-capitalist global project, which has facilitated multinational oil and gas companies in becoming the richest economic entities in human history, such externalities of planetary annihilation are simply the cost of doing business.

In the same way that the climate crisis has collapsed geologic time, initiating state shifts in planetary-scale systems that once operated on the timescales of millennia, so too has the crisis collapsed the narrative between us and "the environment." There is no "the environment"--we are the environment. As we treat each other, so we treat the world; sacrifice zones and sacrifice people. In the colonial and petro-capitalist global project, which has facilitated multinational oil and gas companies in becoming the richest economic entities in human history, such externalities of planetary annihilation are simply the cost of doing business. It is a wholly bankrupt project. As you said, we inherit this project together and, along with many others, are responsible for reparation and restoration to both people and place.

So, what does that work look like? I think part of it looks like integration and bearing witness, to catalyze that exact transition from trauma to grief, and into meaning and connection. For the crisis of greenhouse gas emission, it's important to remember that just 100 multinational companies are responsible for ~70% of global emissions, and the concept of an individual "carbon footprint" was created by British Petroleum to blame us for their greed--so concrete policy change to decarbonize and hold polluters accountable, on a governmental and international scale, is key. Buying into individualist narratives of solutions is a trap that reframes responsibility for this calamity onto the shoulders of, for example, my child. Still, if we zoom out beyond the physical problem of atmospheric gases and take a holistic look at how individuals can influence the climate system, there is meaningful agency and impact on the individual level. I think this agency looks like a true commitment to stewardship and care across all aspects of our life--it is unabashedly intersectional, vulnerable, justice-focused, and committed to reparation. I think the embrace of an ethic of care can feel irrelevant in a world on fire, but it is not. It is at the very core of what a commitment to transformation looks like.

I take my position as a scientist and activist seriously because I want to transform whatever personal power I have into collective power. In this way, for Rowan Institute, which is a training and climate leadership think tank, I'm in the process of sharing the platform with a new wave of younger scientists so that the organization can function as a leadership incubator for historically marginalized climate and environmental scientists. The book I'm writing is a dissection of the norms of white climate scientists who value quantitative data and patriarchal control to the exclusion of all else--as well as their egos and self-deputized policing and the pseudo-feminist boondoggles in the movement right now--presented through personal, embodied stories of my career as a scientist and my heritage as a white settler. For both these projects, I think an ethic of care is not necessarily toothless; we can be loving, fierce, and uncompromising in our values all at the same time. Because a better world is possible, and we are on our way.

Teresa, it is so great to be in conversation with you. I am thankful that we are doing the work in parallel and in solidarity with one another. It makes me feel less alone, less imperiled, and more firmly rooted to the path ahead.

Wow, I was born and raised in West Seattle and am the fourth generation on my mom's side to live there--I grew up just off California Avenue between Atlantic and Seattle streets, and in high school, we moved near the Alaska Junction. When I visit my mom, I turn on Oregon Street. But I didn't realize your direct ancestral connection to the place. There are so many layers of history that cannot be measured using scientific instruments but still have consequence, which is where storytelling comes in. I'm grateful for the work you're doing, too, and for the possibility of more interdisciplinary collaboration between artists and scientists, which feels like a step toward integrating our social heart and intellect.

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