The following originally appeared on A New and Ancient Story.
The environmentalist Michael Mielke just wrote to me the following, “We came back over-and-over to the realization that the climate movement must proceed through the several stages of grief to get to Acceptance.”
I am happy to see the growing recognition of what he is talking about. The grief is essential in order to integrate on a deep level the reality of the situation we face. Otherwise it remains, to most people, theoretical. After all, our social infrastructure insulates us pretty well from the tangible effects of climate change (so far). For most people, compared to say their mortgage payment or their teenager’s addiction problem, climate change seems quite remote and theoretical — something that is only happening in the future or on the news. As long as that is the case, they will not take meaningful action either, and it won’t change through persuasion. Persuasion does not penetrate deeply enough. No one is ever “persuaded” to make major changes in their life’s commitments, unless that persuasion is accompanied by an experience that impacts them on a physical and emotional level.
As long as grief is not fully experienced, then normal still seems normal. Even if one is intellectually persuaded of the reality and gravity of climate change, the felt reality is still, “It isn’t real,” or “It’s gonna be fine.”
Of course, by the time that the impact of climate change penetrates the structures of normalcy and causes food shortages, catastrophic weather events, etc., that impact modern Western society, it will probably be too late. So far the elite nations are able to insulate themselves from the harm that ecological destruction causes. Therefore it seems unreal. The air conditioner still works. The car still runs. The credit card still works. The garbage truck takes away the trash. School is open at 8am and there is medicine in the pharmacy. The narratives that define normal life are still intact. If we wait for those narratives to be demolished by external events — by geopolitical and ecological catastrophe — it will be too late.
That defines the challenge before us. How do we bring people to care as much about climate change as the residents of Flint, Michigan care about the lead in their water?
Here is what I want everyone in the climate change movement to hear: People are not going to be frightened into caring. Scientific evidence-based predictions about what will happen 10, 20, or 50 years in the future are not going to make them care, not enough. What we need is the level of activism and energy that we are seeing now in Flint. That requires making it personal. And that requires facing the reality of loss. And that requires experiencing grief. There is no other way.
That is why I am suspicious of the entire framing of the climate change issue. To focus on an abstract, global quantity (CO2 or GGE’s (greenhouse gas equivalents)) creates a gap between cause and effect that requires an intellectual buy-in to the very same systems of authority that have long presided over and defended our ecocidal system. That framing, which I call CO2 reductionism, also lends itself to globalized and financialized solutions that, we have seen again and again, often have damaging ecological and social effects on the local level. CO2 reductionism has been used to justify and promote things like biofuel plantations that destroy traditional farming or wild lands, hydroelectric projects that submerge pristine ecosystems, nuclear power plants, GMOs, and even fracking.
Environmental organizations have long understood, at least unconsciously, the power of accessing grief; hence the success of campaigns invoking superstar species like elephants, rhinos, or whales. I think we can learn from that in the area of climate change. I like to make the point that everything that we might oppose on CO2 grounds can also be opposed on more local, tangible grounds. The Alberta Tar Sands projects are an example. Even if you know nothing about the greenhouse effect, what is happening there is heartbreaking. The same with mountaintop removal of coal. The same for oil field development. The same for offshore oil drilling and the whole petroleum industry (looking at oil spills). By framing them in terms of CO2, I am afraid we distance people from the aspects of those things that provoke grief and horror. If what is wrong with those things is CO2, and we avert our eyes from the immediate horror on the ground, then it seems perfectly reasonable to say, “Well, we’ll offset that gas field by planting a forest. And besides, it’s just transitional until we get enough wind turbines operating.”
Paradoxically, the CO2 framing actually enables the continuation of all the activities that are generating CO2.
I know this verges on apostasy, but I think we need to drop CO2 as the defining narrative of “green.” If you want to step into and the through the grief process as a society, CO2 is a hard sell. Sure you can say that such-and-such a grievous flood in Bangladesh or drought in Niger was worsened by climate change, but people have to accept it as an article of faith, because Science Says So.
I’m not saying climate change isn’t a factor. But there are causes that are a lot more tangible. In many places people say, “The rains stopped coming because we cut down the forests.” I think we need to move toward making the forests sacred again, and the mangroves, and the rivers — to see them as sacred beings and not as instruments of human utility, to be protected because of their greenhouse mitigating contribution.
The attitude of instrumental utilitarianism toward nature — that is the problem. I’m talking about the idea that the world outside ourselves is basically a pile of resources whose value is defined by its utility. If that doesn’t change, nothing will change. And for that to change, for us to see nature and the material world as sacred and valuable in its own right, we must connect to the deep part of ourselves that already knows that. When we make that connection and feel the hurts of the planet, grief is unavoidable.
From this stance, we still seek to change everything that the CO2 narrative names as dangerous, but for different reasons and with different eyes. We no longer have to conjoin environmentalism with faith in Big Science and institutional authority, implying that if only people had more trust in the authorities (in this case scientific, but it extends to all the systems that embed and legitimize the institution of science) then things would be fine. You know what? Even if the “climate change deniers” are right, it wouldn’t alter my environmental passion one bit. Granted, I am a sample of one person here, but to me that indicates that it isn’t important to win the intellectual debate with the skeptical forces. That isn’t necessary to make people care.
I am grateful that awareness of the importance of grief is entering the environmental movement. Now is the time to translate that awareness into our framing and strategy.