Grief in Our Time, and Turning Towards Hope and Action

I distinctly remember the moment last quarter when I felt completely defeated by grief. It was during a week when my coursework had aligned to cover the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the myriad anthropogenic impacts that have depleted whale populations, and the ongoing battle for Tribal nations to have their fishing treaty rights upheld by Washington State. I was toggling between my law book discussing the numerous mortalities of dolphins in the 1960s due to the yellowfin tuna industry, a marine mammal biology textbook reviewing mass cetacean culls, a book reviewing the data that explores the capacity for orcas to experience heartbreak, and a news article on the severity of destroyed salmon habitat in the Pacific Northwest. With a tight chest and tears in my eyes, I placed my books aside and absentmindedly made the all-too-familiar mistake of turning to my phone for a mental break. I opened Instagram to the smiling face of Elijah McClain, who should have been celebrating his twenty-fifth birthday that day. Any efforts to evade my despair and fury were lost, and I sunk into feeling the intensely painful reality of the world we are living in.

San Francisco, CA (June 7, 2020) – Black Lives Matter protesters take to the streets with masks to protect themselves from COVID-19. (Photo credit: Virginia Hines, shared under a Creative Commons license)

 

Mental health has long been of interest to me, and I pursued a bachelor’s degree in psychology in part to better understand how our perceptions and emotional experiences shape our reality. I have felt devastated about the plight of my fellow animals and humans for as long as I can remember. This was certainly on my mind as I considered the decision to enroll in an environmentally focused master’s program, but failing to be part of the solution felt more problematic to me than being immersed in these issues. So immersed I have become, cringing while I read about disintegrating coral systems and fighting nausea as I discovered the cruel methods used by early colonial settlers to dispatch marine mammals.

There are many injustices to mourn in our current times. For the scope of this article I focus largely on environmental grief, but I want to acknowledge that this process of grieving and hope is important for the movements for social justice as well. There are many actions and behaviors that simply cannot continue in America, and at the forefront of these are police brutality against Black Americans and the systemic perpetuation of racism. At the same time, environmental justice scholars tell us that eco-grief is disproportionately experienced by white individuals despite the fact that BIPOC communities face greater exposure to environmental threats.

The fact that underserved communities have long been living in a state of uncertainty for their personal and community safety is not meant to discredit more recent feelings of hopelessness that some have. Instead, it draws our attention to how racist institutions perpetuate environmental inequity and how we should prioritize dismantling systemic oppression throughout the nation. Viewing the environmental crisis through this lens provides an important opportunity to connect with long-standing successful land stewardship practices, and to demand a societal reform that prioritizes environmental equity within this action-based framework.

Being part of a civilization that has taken so many terrible missteps is painful. However, allowing a moment to grieve, then turning towards hope has been a powerful way to engage. Despite recognizing that humans have such a great capacity for error, I have a deeply seeded optimism. And in this mindset, I believe we can build a more sustainable and equitable path forward.

Acknowledging grief is important for individuals engaged in repairing the human-environment relationship. As this community better embraces the emotional component of fixing broken systems, it will become easier to reject the injustices that living beings on this planet face at the hands of humans. It is important to recognize our grief, accept it and allow it to surface when it needs to, then turn towards action. Paralyzed by the absolute mountains that humanity must climb together to achieve a healthy and equitable world, the easier option might be to stay on the ground. To me, accepting grief and then fighting for a better world is the most courageous thing we can do. These atrocities are not new, but our capacity to respond to them grows as technological advances help facilitate movements of resistance.

The cycle of racist, neocolonial, patriarchal, extraction-based, needlessly wasteful, destructive, and deadly practices of the political and societal powers in the United States has been in motion since the arrival of European colonizers, and it is a system that has failed. It has failed at inclusively keeping both humans and the land safe and healthy. We have more science, perspective, and ability to understand global impacts than ever before, and this continuation of the status quo is simply unacceptable.

In my efforts to understand the endeavors of environmental and social scientists to combat these injustices and inadequacies, I came across Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark. Solnit wrote this poetic testament to hope in 2003, following the election of President George W. Bush. Though the book is nearly two decades old, as she points out in her foreword at the beginning of her 2016 edition, the lessons have only become more relevant. She acknowledges the deep despair of countless events surrounding the Bush administration’s response to September 11 and the Iraq War, but also the changing viewpoints and heroic actions of people around the world in response to these tragedies.

Solnit’s argument for keeping hope alive is not to create a false narrative that everything is or will be okay. Instead, we must accept that things are far from okay and that things are in a state of terrible disarray, but that humans have a long history of questioning and shifting the norm when the situation demands. She speaks to the ambiguity of inhabiting a space of slow but permanent change: though it may be impossible to detect the mechanisms at work, structural shifts are taking place during a social movement as it gains momentum. Deconstructing heavily enforced institutions, such as dismantling the fossil fuel industry or returning stolen land to Indigenous peoples, will take time and collective action.

Solnit also draws upon the issue of lost hope within the context of a phenomenon known as collective amnesia, or shifting baselines syndrome. This refers to the human tendency to adapt to long-term changes and establish baselines that do not accurately reflect how much change has occurred. The classic example of this was presented in fisheries science: both size and abundance of trophy fish in the Florida Keys had substantially decreased without detection. This was due to a lack of archival knowledge through the generations of fishermen, which led to frequent and poorly informed updates about what a healthy population should look like. Applied to the notion of remaining hopeful during times of social strife, one can see how it can erroneously feel like change is impossible and that activist efforts are failing. These cognitive errors can lead us astray, especially in a society that does not value Elder wisdom and generational knowledge.

Mineral King Valley, CA (July 27, 2004) – Site of the proposed Disney ski resort that was blocked due to protestors in the 1960s. (Photo credit: Hiking Mike, shared under a Creative Commons license)

 

If we shift our perspective to imagine what our world would look like without acts of resistance, instead of focusing on the ways in which humans have failed to act, we can begin to connect with the innumerable victories that have been accomplished by activism and combat the issue of collective amnesia. Often, environmental victories are invisible. They are the pipeline that wasn’t built, the mountainside that wasn’t developed for a ski resort, or the river that isn’t on fire. Solnit argues that such victories come alive with storytelling. Connecting with these victories can shift the attention away from the political stage, where the powerful take the spotlight and draw attention to conventional interpretations of history regardless of how unproductive they are.

The human experience is dynamic, ongoing, and cannot be saved, because saving is a term used for something that can be removed from “the flux of earthly change,” as Solnit puts it. As such, triumphs within the historical landscape cannot be measured by an end point or a punctuated conclusion. Even movements that are often considered to have been successful, such as the women’s suffrage movement, have created systemic shortcomings that demand continued efforts for change. There is no saving, no abolishing of the world’s evils, but there are triumphs in the fight for good.

Such triumphs are constantly unfolding before our eyes. Many recent articles document how the COVID-19 pandemic has united individuals, and how historical catastrophes have similarly served as a catalyst for widespread community cooperation. Solnit explains how the American inclination is to assume a right to a private existence, centered on individualism and personal autonomy, and how such an orientation is an immense privilege. This perspective goes hand in hand with the false notion of “American invulnerability,” and a collective tendency to move through the world distracted by busy schedules and technology, numb to the injustices occurring locally and globally.

However, in times of crisis, individuals have consistently come together to help others. There are countless examples of people taking heroic actions during a disaster or putting their lives in danger to save a stranger. Such unifying phenomena are experienced at a community scale, and exemplify the human inclination to use collective action to combat challenges. When experiencing a shared threat, individuals have shown that they can be anything but selfish. This is not to overlook the many ways in which governing bodies and large corporations have turned their backs on non-white communities, nor to discount that in some situations acts of violence can increase during a crisis. Continuing to confront these forms of systemic racism are inextricably tied to the ongoing fight for a more just society.

That moment last quarter was not my first time succumbing to such sorrow and it certainly will not be my last, but I have worked on developing a toolkit to shift moments of grief into action. Shutting down because of these emotions will not lead to the world that I want to live in. I am committed to taking actions every day that work to dismantle these broken systems, questioning what I think I know about the world, and striving for the more sustainable and equitable society I believe humans are capable of.

These are frightening, heartbreaking, and harrowing times. We are constantly inundated with news about how rapidly time is running out for global nations to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions; the crisis of detained children at the US border; the racism and misogyny underlying the Atlanta shootings; a truly endless list of horrors. It is exhausting, but it is also unifying. The ability to receive constant and immediate updates about global occurrences also means that swift and widespread united efforts can be taken in response.

I have great hope for the future of our planet. This hope is shrouded in uncertainty and will require tireless efforts, but history proves that people often push back against injustice and now is certainly not the time to retire our collective energies. As Solnit so eloquently reminds us, “joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of (protest).”

San Francisco, CA (November 15, 2016) – People march in solidarity against the Dakota Access Pipeline, past San Francisco City Hall. (Photo credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen, shared under a Creative Commons license)

Author’s notes:

I urge you all to become informed and intentional consumers of diverse bodies of knowledge and information. Below are some recommended works by BIPOC authors on the ongoing fight for environmental, social, and academic justice:

Contact Currents’ Editor-in-chief for access to the following publications cited in this piece:

Blain, M. (1994). Power, war, and melodrama in the discourses of political movements. Theory and Society, 23(6), 805-837. doi: 10.1007/BF00993218

de Allen, G. J. G. (2009). Space, power, consciousness and women’s resistance: A review essay. The CLR James Journal, 15(1), 248-264. doi: 10.5840/clrjames200915113

Whyte, K. (2018). Settler colonialism, ecology, and environmental injustice. Environment and Society, 9, 125-144. doi: 10.3167/ares.2018.090109