An atmosphere of grief

Living with loss in the Anthropocene (Part 1)

Ivor Williams
Nov 15, 2019 · 16 min read

We are living through the sixth mass extinction, due to climate change and ecological breakdown. Collectively, we are experiencing unprecedented change and decline within a short time, with visceral feelings and experiences of grief and loss.

However, rather than simply despair in the face of extinction, these experiences of loss, and the resulting collectives forms of mourning are an important transitional step in a changing world.

Although, the scale and depth of change is unique, we have gone through transitions like this before. What were they, and how did we respond?

How might we better understand these feelings of grief and loss from climate and ecological breakdown, in a contemporary sense?


Our world, and everything in it is changing. We are living through a unique period of acceleration and collapse, where the systems of our planet are transforming in front of our eyes. The biggest environmental issues can be summarised around CO2 emissions, deforestation, global warming, ice and biodiversity loss.

The biggest problem is the level of CO2 that has been rising since the industrial revolution and is now at its highest for about 4 million years. The rate of this rise has not been seen for 66 million years.

We are sending billions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year from coal, oil and gas burning. We emitted more than half of all CO2 in roughly the last 30 years.

We are destroying our forests. The felling of forests for timber, cattle, soy and palm oil is a large contributor to carbon emissions. It is also a major cause of the annihilation of wildlife on Earth.

These man-made activities — burning of carbon, industrial activity and deforestation — have incredible implications on our environment. The planet’s average temperature started to climb steadily two centuries ago, but has increased massively since the second world war as consumption and population has risen. Global warming means there is more energy in the atmosphere, making extreme weather events more frequent and more intense.

As a result, Greenland has lost almost 4 trillion tonnes of ice since 2002. Mountain ranges from the Himalayas to the Andes to the Alps are also losing ice rapidly as glaciers shrink. A third of the Himalayan and Hindu Kush ice is likely to disappear. As heating melts the sea ice, the darker water revealed absorbs more of the sun’s heat, causing more heating — which in turns creates unpredictable feedback loops that cannot be stopped.

This results in not only water becoming less available, but causes the sea to rise. The pace of global sea level rise nearly doubled since 1993. With the latest projections, one in five people in the world will eventually see their cities — such as London, Mumbai, Amsterdam — submerged.

Current species’ extinction rates, a measure of biodiversity loss, have been estimated to be 100, or even as much as 1000 times higher than natural background rates.

According to the UN, the average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. Available evidence supports an estimate of 10% of all insect species are being threatened. At least 680 vertebrate species had been driven to extinction since the 16th century and more than 9% of all domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture had become extinct by 2016, with at least 1000 more breeds still threatened.

Our rampant consumer lifestyles play a fundamental part to species decline. Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980. 300–400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic waste from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters, and fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’, which in total cover the size of the UK.

The acceleration of global emissions, and the radically changing atmosphere that affects all forms of topography also reveals our ancient pre-civilisational past, exposing ancient strata and in some cases bringing life back from the dead.

In 2012, scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences sprouted three dozen white tundra flowers, from 30,000-year-old fruits. The specimens were recovered from ancient squirrel burrows, 125 feet deep in the permafrost of northeast Russia.

In 2016, a strain of anthrax, released from the permafrost, killed a 12-year-old boy and more than 2,500 reindeer in Siberia. Although anthrax, smallpox and the plague have been found, uncovered and spread in various pockets of space, limiting their effects. They demonstrate the unexpected and dangerous effects that appear from previously frozen permafrost melting in the Siberian summers.

The current conditions are bleak. These statistics often make abstract and impersonal what is for many, a horror revealing itself in real time.

What was once regarded as glacial — slow moving, almost concrete — is now felt at a human pace — marked by extreme seasons, grandparent’s tales and real-time climate conversations — and challenges the way in which we coalesce as a society and understand the natural pace of change, or as Stewart Brand put it in 2011:

“Climate change is nature coming up to hit us”

Taken in isolation, these events and changes increase our responses to stress, danger and threat. They put us on edge, trigger us into response or retreat. But taken together, understood as an integrated, inter-connected whole they reveal a deeper, more existential threat that terrifies us deeply. The very air we breathe, the land we stand on, the water we drink, the plants and animals we rely on are all threatened. So what is the response to these present and emerging threats?

For the academic, Professor Jem Bendell one response as a climate scientist was — like the first demand of Extinction Rebellion — to finally tell the truth.

His Deep Adaptation paper — released without fanfare as an occasional paper in July 2018 — describes some hard truths about the climate breakdown, and its effects on civilization in brutally frank manner. Outlining how difficult life is likely to become he wrote:

“When I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbours for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.”

Few academic papers have ever had an impact on the consensus reality as much as Bendell’s has. The effect was described as one 31-year old as “like I was diagnosed with a terminal illness”. The paper has by now been read over 100,000 times, and shared amongst school children, social groups and workplaces around the world. Along with the IPCC report in 2018 that gave humanity 13 years to halt the worst effects of climate change by limiting global temperature rises by 2 degrees, for many — particularly in the industrialised West — the truth finally came home.

This naked truth described by Bendell preceded his solemn argument that humanity urgently needs to undertake ‘deep adaptations’ to mitigate and survive the radical transformation in the decades and century ahead, which Bendell summarised as resilience, relinquishment and restoration.

Resilience asks us “how do we keep what we really want to keep?” Relinquishment asks us “what do we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse?” Restoration asks us “what can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies?”

These three framing positions require us to change, and change quickly, in response to the shifting landscape we find ourselves in as we continue into the 21st century. But for many people, adapting to a future of uncertainty — with its fear and stress — is shrouded from view while another set of emotions and feelings take hold. Feelings of deep grief.

The experience of grief is a natural human response to loss. It is common, and we will all encounter it throughout the course of our lifetimes. “Grief, if anything, is the condition of the human spirit.

More specifically, grief is the internal physiological and emotional responses to loss, and mourning is the period of mental, emotional and personal transition as people learn to live again in the context of loss, and is often done so in a collective manner.In the framing of grief around climate change, it is:

“…a form of “disenfranchised grief” or a grief that isn’t publicly or openly acknowledged. Indeed, ecological grief, and the associated work of mourning, experienced in response to ecological losses are often left unconsidered, or entirely absent, in climate change narratives, policy and research.”

Which is a huge problem, as Stephen Jenkinson — a former palliative care counsellor from Ontario — because:

“Grief takes time to appear.

And time is short.”

The frontline for these complex, ecosystem-level changes are nations and countries populated by indigenous people whose very culture and identity is intrinsically formed by their relationship to the natural environment. Places like Greenland, Tuvalu, Siberia, Canada, Australia and the Himalayas. Not least for the many other millions that experience rapidly changing weather systems and climates that challenge the infrastructure and societies that were built around more stable patterns.

In these indigenous communities, the experience of a changing way of life is achingly palpable, and the grief and loss has set in. In documentary, Lament of the Land, one man from Nunatsiavut in Labrador reflects:

“You know as Inuit, this life that we lead… being known as people of the sea ice? If there’s no sea ice, how can we be known as people of the sea ice?”

The fundamental questions of who they are, what they identify is, is brought to bear, in a slow agonising melt across the landscape.

These feelings of grief felt across the industrialised world as well. Research conducted amongst Hurricane Katrina evacuees found many people experienced significant grief as a result of losing their homes and neighbourhoods. This is similar to other post-hurricane and post-cyclone settings. What may seem obvious — losing a home, belongings, loved ones after catastrophic events — is underscored that many of these feelings of grief and loss may also continue after affected residents move back home or adjust to a new place.

In this sense — the feeling of grief even when in your home — is crystallised in the new phenomenon of solastalgia. It is defined as the distress caused by environmental change, but more commonly expressed as a feeling of homesickness while still at home. It comes from watching your surroundings change in front of your eyes. The expression of a world where ecology changes at a visible, human, not planetary pace.

The people of the uppermost Northern Hemisphere — who have hunted, traded and lived on and around the ice for thousands of years — are experiencing the literal loss of their homeland. The Sami herders of Sweden talk about “a sense of grief for the future” as their patterns of life change in response to declining food, uncertain weather patterns and increased knowledge of climatic change from scientists. The compounding feeling that they may be the last generation of herders amplifies the inescapable feeling of loss.

An associated feeling to ecological grief is eco-anxiety. If feelings of depression are grounded in overthinking about the past, then anxiety is a feeling comes from overthinking about the future. When the future is increasingly sketched out — not as a progessive, improving place where every generation does better than the last — but an uncertain, limiting place of cascading calamities — then it should come as no surprise that many young people are experiencing eco-anxiety.

Rigorous evidence is thin on the ground as to the indirect effects of climate change on mental health, but one preliminary survey found that 40% of 16–24 year-olds feel “overwhelmed” by climate change. Thankfully, researchers such as my colleague Dr Emma Lawrence at the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial are beginning the hard work to really understand that problem, so that we might better support younger generations in the trouble ahead.

These feelings of uncertainty, loss, and dissolution of hope have already begun to be displayed in tragic, committed ways.

At 6:30am on April 2018, the lawyer and environmental activist, David Buckel, set himself on fire in Prospect Park in New York. His death was in protest to the continuing fossil fuel use, writing in a note:

My early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.

His death, as painful and harrowing as it was, is made more so by the fact that his actions can barely be understood by most people. Killing oneself is often regarded as a lack of control over the feelings that threaten to overwhelm someone. Wanting to kill the feeling — the desperation and despair — rather than themselves. But in an act of defiant death, Buckel expressed a very decisive, rational response to what he understood as a dire situation.

For Foucault, Grief is another site — like madness, medicine or prisons — of disciplined power. As a social construct, we are told there are ‘normal’ ways to grieve. There are socially accepted periods of time to mourn the loss of something, to carry its weight, even to wear its clothing or carry its photo. But should we linger, remain conflicted, we seek to challenge the social norms that are invisibly tying us together. For Buckel, his response was seen by many as abnormal, but given the existential motives, his actions may precede a resetting and undisciplining of grief.

Indeed, it is in his singular act, in the anxious behaviour and thoughts of countless adolescents and young people, and the slow painful experiences felt by communities of indigenous people, that we are exploring the deepest of human fears: that death is around the corner, that life is a fine balance between harmony and destruction. Climate change is an existential threat that reveals the fragility of our lives, and of our understanding of ourselves.

The significance of our very human fear of death, is at the centre of Ernest Becker’s thesis, in his seminal book, The Denial of Death. Becker writes:

“…the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity — activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for men.”

As sentient animals, we are uniquely able to understand that we will one day turn to dust. The knowledge of this terrifies us. For Becker, human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of mortality.

In order to deny and suppress those feelings, we construct and pursue many immortality projects that enable us to become part of something that will outlast our time on earth. To become something heroic and part of something that will never die. For Becker, this provides us with meaning, purpose and significance in the grand scheme of things. He posits all things: offspring, religion, civilisation itself, is one giant immortality project against the terror of death.

But climate change reckons with all of this. Becker writes that our death denial prompts us to “assure the complete triumph of man over nature” Yet nature is now cruelly triumphing over us, threatening our previous primacy and beginning to literally dissolve beneath our feet, the atmosphere transforming into an uninhabitable environment for us.

In our grief, nature itself is becoming ‘cenotaphised’ (from the Cenotaph in London). As campaigns and groups seek to grant natural bodies — lakes, rivers, mountains — the same rights as people, to assert their universal rights and protections — then we bring with that the memorialisation we reserve for our dead as well.

Symbols of nature, are becoming dead things, as monuments to the past, and we are beginning to mourn for them. The use of very public displays of mourning, are situated in deep social experiences that go back millennia. But we have almost never done about the scale of nature which we are doing now.

The funerals held for the Ok and Pizol glaciers in Iceland and Switzerland represent the incarnation of this engagement. A plaque at Ok reminds everyone that this is just the first glacier to disappear in Iceland. It won’t be the last. We are now committed to a path that will lead to sea level rises, acidification, deforestation, extreme weather, destruction, loss, death.

The recent Grief March in London held by Extinction Rebellion invited popular engagement into the necessity to grieve the death of natural environments. The public was encouraged to “express yourself in accordance to the mourning rituals of your culture. Start in nature, end in nature. We unite in grief, rage and love for life on Earth.”

These rituals — processions, funerals — which could appear a bit theatrical, are nevertheless emerging expressions of a necessary process with which we must all go through, to sit with the facts, melting at our feet.

However, this collective behaviour around grief and loss — which we will view through a historical lens shortly — is increasingly seen as a distinctly important part of the experience of living in the 21st century. Ashlee Cunsolo and Neville Ellis writing in Nature note that:

“Grief and mourning have ‘we-creating’ capacities, exposing our known, unknown and unacknowledged connections to others, and allowing for opportunities to reach across differences to connect with others.”

This opportunity for connection through mourning may well be the most powerful expression of grief as a necessary experience in relation to climate change, and we’ll return to that in a bit. However, because the experience for most of us is not so visceral and we try to avoid pain if we can, we often immediately seek comfort through feelings of hope.

ENERGY+ILLAWARRA is a community developed program in New South Wales in Australia, created to improve energy efficiency in the homes of low-income, older people. As part of its campaign to shift behaviours and attitudes about the impact being energy efficient had on people, they developed ten short films that challenged misconceptions about everyday energy use, and provided strategies on how to use energy more efficiently. This is where many of us see the changes for climate change happening — which needs to be dealt with separately. Because interestingly, they captured EEG readings from viewers in a study, in an attempt to understand the efficacy of the campaign. They found that the the stories generated empathy, engagement and therefore actionable behaviour from people. It seemed possible to bring hope around climate change adaptation — like energy efficiency — to a stubborn often climate change denying demographic — older, lower-income adults in rural Australia.

More than this, feelings of hope are often rushed to follow the feelings of dread and despair. Columbia University wrote in February six reasons to be hopeful about fighting climate change. They included evidence of action all around; rapid advancements in technology and clean energy; ongoing international climate agreements and the fact that more people are concerned about climate change. Seeing hope in the fact that more people are concerned raises an interesting question: what happens when concern and hope are mixed? What if one community’s values of what is important to save — a traditional way of hunting and social life — conflicts with another — say, ethno-nationalists in deeply right-wing states or nations? The immediate move to hope belies the deeper structural problems that climate change exacerbates.

Jem Bendell also questioned the immediate movement and focus on hope when engaging with climate change, when he addressed the UK Council for Psychotherapy last month saying:

“The allegiance to hope and positivity in our culture also means we don’t allow as we might the public sharing and discussion of our emotions of sadness, confusion, and grief. Nor our longing to connect and to experience wonder at life. Rather, in public and professional life, we invite each other to be happy, positive and capable.

If we suppress difficult emotions in ourselves, and ignore or somehow fix them in others, then we are alienating ourselves from an important way that we experience the world.”

Or again, as Stephen Jenkinson simply puts it:

“You don’t need hope to proceed. You need grief.”

In the second essay, I will show that we have not only lived through cataclysmic loss before, but highlight that our civilisations are founded on it. I’ll then discuss how our collective practices around mourning might help us accept what is inevitable, and not just allow us to move through it, but offer us a different type of hope.

Ivor Williams

Written by

Designer, developing new ways of thinking about and experiencing death, dying and loss in the 21st century.

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