What You Are Feeling Is Grief

jperkins10.4 By Page Harbour
Paige Harbour is a university student who assists me as an editor and in social networking. She is also an astute observer of these times and a brilliant thinker and writer who has her hand on the pulse of the generation born around the beginning of this millennium. I've asked her to write a guest newsletter.  John Perkins

When COVID shut down my college campus my school bag was shoved deep into a closet. After more than a year of quarantine and confusion it is still filled with past assignments, printed worksheets ready for the recycling bin. It surprises me how far-away my pre-pandemic memory is situated – these assignments are now hardly recognizable to me. One of these papers was a ten-year plan, meant to be finished for a sociology class, still a blank page.

That semester had involved taking an environmental sciences course; an activity that can be summarized as three months of terrible news. News about all the ways in which humanity had profoundly damaged our only home, news about how all the wrong people were going to suffer immeasurably for these crimes against the planet. We sat listening, cycling through rapt attention and total dissociation. Massive extinction events, cataclysmic fires, rising tides. Threads of synthetic fabric and splintered plastic fragments are in the ground, the water, the food we eat. Did you know Iceland now holds funerals for melting glaciers? It felt as though the world was dying, yet I was expected to continue living. 

I went to school and saw students studying for jobs that wouldn’t exist in ten years, driving cars they wouldn’t be able to afford to fill with gas in fifteen years, planning futures they would never have the chance to fully live. My aunts and uncles had beautiful children– all I could think of was how their graduations would be synchronized with the doomsday clock. I ate good food and thought of the energy it took to be produced and carried to me; I drove to the woods and thought about pollution runoff from my car. 

Opening your eyes to the catastrophe and the loss of life that will flow from climate change is almost crippling. Our brains have a curious feature that causes us to shy away from things that are very painful. It’s a self-protection mechanism – it’s literally difficult to think about catastrophic experiences or painful ideas. When you first heard about coronavirus, you most likely thought some variation of “this can’t be that bad.” We weren’t prepared for the pandemic. This is backed up by further research: the very wiring of our brains is unprepared for the existential threat of invisible illness or climate change. Humanity by no means was meant to live in a calm and protected state of certainty, and we certainly didn’t for our first 200,000 years. Yet the vast majority of our time on earth has been spent focusing only on the present. We are simply not wired to respond to statistics and end-of-the-world timelines.
This means that it’s more than deeply painful to acknowledge what’s happening on our planet right now. It’s near impossible. With shame, I can say that my own fear for the future has never driven me towards action. The panic and hopelessness I associate with climate dread feels too large, absolute, global. The news seems so biblical and my own hands seem so small. Our brains emerged from an evolutionary track that has singularly primed humanity for action against imminent threat. Unfortunately, there is no map to guide us through the threat of an uninhabitable future. 

If we had a culturally accepted method of processing danger on the scale of climate change, we could move through the terror and emerge with new perceptions to guide new models of change. Is there an access point for that potential new consciousness? Will we find it? An emerging line of philosophical thought proposes that the closest model we will have to explore climate nihilism is grief. 

Grieving doesn’t always mean stasis or passivity. Many of us feel familiar with the expected stages of mourning, the ways we choose to grieve loss of human life: a movement through denial and anger towards acceptance and adaptation. Most of modern culture doesn’t seem to hold that same space for loss of the natural world. My climate-based grief and the grief I felt during the isolation of the pandemic seemed to mirror each other. Both provoked seismic shifts in perception, in our assumptions about how the world works and our place within it. As an Inuit man living on the frigid coast of Labrador 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?” Climate change cuts deeply into humanity’s cultures, practices and daily methods of survival. 

Unlike when a loved one dies, there is no clear end point to climate change, no exact moment to mourn. This makes it difficult to start the process of honoring our losses, both current and anticipated. But it may be helpful to acknowledge that our grief comes from an origin point of love. We grieve for a space, a species, a way of life, because it was deeply beloved. That pain comes from what was once connection. This type of pain cannot be removed or shifted — but it can be shared. If we are able to mourn alongside others, fresh perceptions can be woven out of love intertwined with grief. Those new mindsets could form fresh ideas about agriculture, transportation, and business. We could emerge from the process with a vision of ourselves as vital cogs within nature, as opposed to usurpers of the natural world. 

We may be closer to that vision than ever before. Acknowledging runaway climate change is a series of complex losses: combined, they add up to the loss of an imagined future. Your vision of yourself as someone in control. Your belief that you will be able to protect your family from harm. This pain is reverberating across communities, cultures, and the world. We feel communal grief as we watch our systems become increasingly strained, unable now to produce the lives we once lived or hoped to live. 

Climate change doesn’t just shake our faith in that system, it upends our understanding of the world as we know it. If we are people of a living earth and there is no more living earth..how do we live? If that earth is changing, how will we change? It’s a painful upending, but in that pain is a lesson. It shows us where the core of our love is situated — and where it can go from here.


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