Hope, Despair and Ecological Grief

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Chalice lighting

Hope is a real and resilient and living thing
It is not wilful optimism or deliberately focusing on silver linings
It is remembering the good, remembering love and comfort and connection, and realising that that can and will come again
We light this chalice and may it be for us a guide into the future, a reminder to be led by hope.

Reading – Try to Praise the Mutilated World, by Adam Zagajewski and translated by Clare Cavanagh

Try to praise the mutilated world.

Remember June's long days,

and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.

The nettles that methodically overgrow

the abandoned homesteads of exiles.

You must praise the mutilated world.

You watched the stylish yachts and ships;

one of them had a long trip ahead of it,

while salty oblivion awaited others.

You've seen the refugees going nowhere,

you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.

Remember the moments when we were together

in a white room and the curtain fluttered.

Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

You gathered acorns in the park in autumn

and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.

Praise the mutilated world

and the gray feather a thrush lost,

and the gentle light that strays and vanishes

and returns.

Message, part 1 – by Alexis Granum

Once upon a time there was a kingdom which was ruled by only a few of its many people. In lots of ways, it was a just-enough kingdom: most people did not go too hungry, nearly everyone learned to read and usually things worked out well enough the better part of the time.

The rulers of the kingdom had a story about how things had come to be this way. Wise-enough and just-enough people that they were, they knew full well that having the good story was a thing they wanted. Their story went like this:

It was all through the benevolence and wit of those who knew how to manipulate a master substance called capital that all this had come to be. There wasn’t really anything apart from this master substance that was good – everything else was nasty, brutish, solitary and short. Other humans only really wanted capital, and this capital was the only way to make them co-operate and therefore those that were good at capital were good at ruling and had the greatest wisdom and the greatest justice. It was only fair that they kept most of the coins and could do with them just as they liked.

But the kingdom, in these later more corrupt days, had begun to be divided.

In a great city at the heart of this kingdom, a young woman, well-versed in the arts of spinning and weaving, had a very exclusive shop. Some of the rulers came to visit her, and bought her finely made clothes and mostly paid a fair-enough price for them.

One day, one of the rulers came in wanting to buy some new clothes - something completely exclusive, something hand-tailored, better than anyone else could have and truly expressive of his unique, individual creativity and flair as evidenced by his ability to enchant his capital and make it increase.

“Oh sir,” the young weaver woman said. “I have just the thing. We make a very exclusive cloth in a special pattern that can only be seen by persons with great wisdom who know exactly what the world is and how it should be run. It is all in the very subtle details of the weave.”

“I’ll take it,” he said.

When he came to try on the suit, he opened the garment bag. But there was nothing there.

“Oh now,” said the young weaver woman. “Is it not the loveliest thing you’ve ever seen? Look at how beautifully balanced the lapels are! And the buttonholes – I set those in with my own hands, and took some considerable trouble. The stitches are as even as ever anyone has been able to make a buttonhole. Let me help you try it on.”

At this his heart was sore afeared. Could it – was it – even barely possible that he did not know everything? Was his wisdom in some way deficient or incomplete? No – that could not be – in fact, he was very nearly certain he heard a faint rustling as the weaver woman settled the coat around his shoulders – why, of course he could see it! He just had to sort of squint his eye and look sideways – it was very, very, very, very truly subtle, after all; no wonder it was so hard to see. 

He wore the new suit out, bearing himself very proudly and even strutting a bit. Once he arrived at the palace, he was unsurprised by the puzzled looks on the faces of the cleaners and security guards and receptionists and dinner ladies – for, after all, they were not as wise and perceptive as he. They had almost no capital.

His fellow ministers congratulated him on his purchase. They’d read his not-all-that-subtle humblebrags about his new suit on the palace WhatsApp group – and they knew what it meant if they couldn’t see it.

“What magnificent subtlety!” they said. “What craftspersonship! Whoever is this weaver and tailor?”

He clacked along with his clique, going right up to the gates of parliament and pausing by the door to show off his coat in the sunshine. He had just snared a rather attractive intern into blushing and nodding and smiling as he turned himself back and forth, showing off the details to his best advantage, when someone called out:

“But you have no clothes on!”

He looked around, then down by the door he saw a girl, no more than a schoolgirl, sitting on the ground with a protest sign.

“You have no clothes on,” she repeated. “You can call that subtlety and sophistication and too complicated for little girls to worry their heads over, but you are wrong: it’s just that you have no clothes on and you are so used to ignoring yourself that now you cannot see that you are walking around the Palace of Westminster in only your pants.”

And that was the beginning of the end of his denial.

-

I have been all the people in this story at some point in my life.

Sometimes I can see so clearly, and I know that we are all walking around wearing at least one garment like the emperor's new clothes. Sometimes I’m the one walking around the corridors of relative power in my metaphorical pants, scoffing about “well people may say X but it’s more complicated than that!” Very much the most often I find myself in a compromised, complicated position like our trickster weaver – I know the garment can’t exist, but still someone has demanded I make it and the rent is too damn high and what am I supposed to do to try to live in a world with such people in it?

Last summer has, however, been the beginning of the end of my denial. It’s not as though I never knew nor believed in climate change before. I’ve been doing one thing or another with the idea of reducing my carbon footprint since I was little. But it has been hard to not live in denial, especially as an adult. It would still be so much easier not to feel and know about what’s likely coming for us all. The whole world seems to tick by as though nothing is happening and we can count on the next fifty years being more or less like the last fifty and it won’t be. We have, people say, fifty harvests left. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t have the words to talk about it. We dismiss the nightmares and anxieties and pieties as alarmism or too much hysteria or somehow out of kilter with reality. I suspect, though, that really we don’t want to feel the truth. We don’t want to know that we are destroying our Blue Boat Home. We don’t want to contemplate our own sorrow or own guilt or own complicity. That’s what’s too big – if we start feeling it, where will it end? Won’t it consume us? How will we ever even try to change things if we’re drowning in misery? 

Reading – On Ecological Grief, by Neville Ellis and Ashlee Cunsolo (link)

Ecological grief reminds us that climate change is not just some abstract scientific concept or a distant environmental problem. Rather, it draws our attention to the personally experienced emotional and psychological losses suffered when there are changes or deaths in the natural world. In doing so, ecological grief also illuminates the ways in which more-than-humans are integral to our mental wellness, our communities, our cultures, and for our ability to thrive in a human-dominated world.

From what we have seen in our own research, although this type of grief is already being experienced, it often lacks an appropriate avenue for expression or for healing. Indeed, not only do we lack the rituals and practices to help address feelings of ecological grief, until recently we did not even have the language to give such feelings voice. And it is for these reasons that grief over losses in the natural world can feel, as American ecologist Phyllis Windle put it, “irrational, inappropriate, anthropomorphic”.

We argue that recognising ecological grief as a legitimate response to ecological loss is an important first step for humanising climate change and its related impacts, and for expanding our understanding of what it means to be human in the Anthropocene. How to grieve ecological losses well — particularly when they are ambiguous, cumulative and ongoing — is a question currently without answer. However, it is a question that we expect will become more pressing as further impacts from climate change, including loss, are experienced.

We do not see ecological grief as submitting to despair, and neither does it justify ‘switching off’ from the many environmental problems that confront humanity. Instead, we find great hope in the responses ecological grief is likely to invoke. Just as grief over the loss of a loved person puts into perspective what matters in our lives, collective experiences of ecological grief may coalesce into a strengthened sense of love and commitment to the places, ecosystems and species that inspire, nurture and sustain us. There is much grief work to be done, and much of it will be hard. However, being open to the pain of ecological loss may be what is needed to prevent such losses from occurring in the first place.

Message, part 2 – by Alexis Granum

For me last summer, that heat and that lack of rain, the dead grass, the wildfires in the North – the North! Was I even in England anymore? – was what tore the veil. You can make the sophisticated and informed argument that one individual climate anomaly is not in itself sufficient evidence for climate change - only long term graphs can tell you that – and that’s true. I know it to be true. I’ve said that before about other climate anomalies in other places. But the difference is not in my knowing. The difference is in my heart. The sorrow and the fear and the guilt all have now rushed in. So much guilt, too – I’ve known so much and done so little – what kind of a person does that make me? And what’s to become of us? What right do I have to live the sort of life that I live? If I had a child, whatever could I say to them?

This flood of feelings has haunted me all year. I don’t know if I have a handle on it yet. Maybe I never really will, because how do you mourn your own unpredictably changing everything before and after and during it happening? But I’m trying. I feel more hopeful some days. I have despaired but I have not drowned.

I can no more abandon my life than anyone else can. We are too bound up together in twenty-first century civilisation for that. But I can find ways to change and new ways to come together with everyone else to incite change. I can, when I’m invited, stand here in front of you all and ask you to think and feel about this, too. 

But how do we begin to talk about what we don’t want to talk about? What do we say?

I’m not alone, I imagine, in being uncomfortable around grief. It’s not callous or uncaring, but I don’t know what to say. I want to fix it somehow or give comfort and I don’t enjoy feeling helpless. 

Fixing, though, is not what grief needs. Grief needs acknowledgement and to take up space. Grief has to be felt, and it helps when we can give it a container to fall into – a funeral, a monument, a wreath laying, a candlelight vigil, putting flowers on a grave.

Grief needs a story. This is what happened, this is how it ended, this is how I feel now.

So this is how, then, we begin. We try. We make deliberate room for putting words to our feelings. But the words “when [ecological griefs] are ambiguous, cumulative and ongoing” must also be heeded. This is an ambiguous loss that we are beginning to experience together. We do not know its full dimensions and cannot know them. We will have to learn to think more dialectically: not “the earth is dying and we must mourn”, but “the earth is both dying and living”. This species has died, has gone extinct, but this one is newly thriving. Everything we knew is here but everything is changed. We had cool summers and had to build our houses to keep heat in. Now we have 40°C and sunshine, and must find new ways to dwell together. Our lives are here and our lives are gone: death, life, but life all changed.

We will have to find words and we will have to find a new story. We can no longer tell the old one about making a conquest of nature and dreaming of constant growth and productivity and salvation through new technology. What story will we tell about these days to the humans who come after us? What new things can we discover about how humans are part of the earth and not its masters? What new dreams can we dream?

Once we can feel the fullness of what we have done, what we will lose, what we will regret, then we can begin again – hopeful, because we can remember beauty and love and connection, and wiser, because we will know how to grieve and to rise again.

I thought we would try something a little bit different today, and use some of our time together to make a little room for mourning together. You’ll see an insert with your order of service on the back of the music - we’re going to try doing a bit of group reading before and after our time for stillness and meditation, and take time to share what we are grieving.

Group readings

After each verse is read by the leader, everyone says the response together:

R. Let us remember and mourn together

V. For the beauty of the earth

V. For the butterflies that chased each other over the buddleia

V. For watching insects on the lawn

V. For the thousands of insects, flowers and birds

V. For the changing seasons, the deep-known rhythms of our years

V. For fragile landscapes already threatened

V. For our own island’s temperate climate

V. For the suffering to come, from deprivation and displacement

V. Not for ourselves, but for those who are likely to lose the most, their land made fully uninhabitable

V. For life as we know it

Group reading – “Praise the Rain”, by Joy Harjo

Leader:

Let us praise the rain

Praise the rain; the seagull dive

The curl of plant, the raven talk—

Left-hand side:  

Praise the hurt, the house slack

The stand of trees, the dignity—

Right-hand side: 

Praise the dark, the moon cradle

The sky fall, the bear sleep—

L:

Praise the mist, the warrior name

The earth eclipse, the fired leap—

R:

Praise the backwards, upward sky

The baby cry, the spirit food—

L:

Praise canoe, the fish rush

The hole for frog, the upside-down—

R:

Praise the day, the cloud cup

The mind flat, forget it all—

All:

Praise crazy. Praise sad.

Praise the path on which we're led.

L:

Praise the roads on earth and water.

Praise the eater and the eaten.

R:

Praise beginnings; praise the end.

Praise the song and praise the singer.

All:

Praise the rain; it brings more rain.

Praise the rain; it brings more rain.

Closing words

Let us go forth to love and mourn the earth
Love the beauty of the earth, and let us praise the mutilated world
May it be so.