Gaia Vince is a London-based freelance science reporter. Her blog is called Wandering Gaia. Recently, she interviewed a number of climate scientists and asked them how they deal with the pain and the sense of loss they are experiencing as the implications of their work become reality. Her findings were published recently by The Guardian. The stories she tells are powerful and worth sharing with CleanTechnica readers.
Steve Simpson is a professor of marine biology and global change at the University of Exeter. He has personally observed the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. He tells Vince,
We come back from our field seasons increasingly broken. You can either think: I can’t do this, I’m going to have to change the science I do; or you might try to internalize all of that pain that you feel. Lots of scientists do the latter – they feel we should be objective and robust, not at the mercy of our emotions.
Increasingly, we’re realizing that we can use that emotional response to form new questions. Working on the bleached and dying coral reefs is enormously important to understanding how those environments are changing. There is a real urge to want to do something about it, rather than just chart the demise. And that’s where our research is heading now. We’re trying to restore some coral reef communities, or a fishery, or replant a mangrove forest. We’re just trying to find ways of protecting pockets of really diverse, vibrant life, which might reseed much larger areas when we tackle the big issues.
It’s really important that we find ways of communicating the grief that we’re feeling and work together to support each other. Then we can become stronger, we can start to develop the science that takes our knowledge and turns it on its head – turns it into a solution, rather than just a negative story.
I think that finding any way of fostering a love of the natural world in the next generation is critical for them to be part of the solution.
Ashlee Consolo is the director of the Labrador Institute at Memorial University in Goose Bay, Canada. Most of her work involves interaction with indigenous Inuit communities in the area. She talked about the changes taking place in those communities.
We interviewed hundreds of people on the coasts over five years, and no matter what age and gender, the changing environmental conditions were impacting them mentally, emotionally. Indigenous people talked about how being able to travel, to hunt, was freedom – a way of connecting to ancestors, culture, and feeling well and whole. With the climate shifting, people spend less time on the land, so they feel sad, angry, lonely and helpless.
A lot of people talked about grief for what it might mean for children and future generations to come. One of the Inuit elders said, “We are people of the sea ice. And if there’s no more sea ice, how do we be people of the sea ice?” And that sort of profound existential question is so deep and complex.
People talked about mourning their own identity, and also anticipatory grief: the sense that the changes are continuing, and that they’re likely to experience worsening of what they’re already seeing. People also discussed the sadness of watching others around the world suffer environmental-related trauma, and knowing the pain of what it’s like.
This is a slow and cumulative grief without end — unlike a human death, say. There’s not one moment that you can pinpoint, but long, enduring grief and anxiety that’s underneath.
Then she talked at length about lessons she has learned from tribal elders.
There’s a power and an honor to grief, because it means that we have loved something, and we’ve had a connection to a place or to species of the planet. We need to find ways to mark our loss and share our loss, but also to remind ourselves that we only grieve what we love. I think new rituals are essential to celebrate that love, and to mark the loss and to come together for loss.
What I really learned from the elders was to start talking about grief as a totally normal response to climate change or other forms of environmental degradation. So it’s not something to feel ashamed about. And then through the leadership of those elders, they started bringing other people in the communities together to talk about what we were finding in research, and have people share their experiences.
The sense of helplessness is very prevalent – the feeling that the scale of our environmental crisis is so large that as individuals we can’t intervene. And I think that’s actually one of the really powerful mobilising potentials of ecological grief – it’s driving action and anger; climate marches. More and more people are coming forward to share their pain and there’s power in that – the capacity to make a sea-change in policy because ecological grief is so much now a part of the public narrative. Inuit leader Sheila Watt-Cloutier led a really amazing movement across Canada, bringing a lawsuit against the government for “the right to be cold”.
We’re seeing incredible leadership coming out of indigenous peoples’ elders, and part of what we have to talk about is: how do we deal with our grief? Because who and what we choose to grieve tells us a lot about ourselves and where our values are.
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I have heard anecdotally from readers that The Guardian has a mixed reputation when it comes to reporting on events in the UK, but its international coverage is unparalleled. Here is there mission statement regarding climate change.
“As the climate crisis escalates., The Guardian will not stay quiet. This is our pledge: we will continue to give global heating, wildlife extinction and pollution the urgent attention and prominence they demand. The Guardian recognizes the climate emergency as the defining issue of our times.”
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