In the 1940s, naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote that one of the penalties of an ecological education is living ‘alone in a world of wounds.’ In 1989, environmentalist Bill McKibben described his preference to walk in the woods in winter, ‘when it is harder to tell what might be dying.’ In 2019 climate justice writer Mary Heglar identified ‘climate vision’ as the unwanted ability to see climate projections all around you – sudden flashes of rising seas, dead people, deserted communities.
As our collective anxieties rise, ‘climate grief’ rhetoric is increasingly prominent in our public conversations about climate crisis. Here are just a few of the headlines and opinion pieces from the last year:
‘Climate despair is making people give up on life’ – VICE.com, July 2019
‘Climate change: Iceland holds funeral for melted glacier’ – BBC.co.uk, August 2019
‘India: children grapple with the aftermath of farmer suicides’ (nearly 60,000 farmer suicides have been linked to climate change) – DW.org, November 2019
‘How scientists are coping with ecological grief’ – The Guardian, January 2020
and my personal favourite:
‘Apocalypse got you down? Maybe this will help’ – NY Times, November 2019
In my experience as a climate activist, writer, and researcher, there is a tipping point for knowledge about a dying world, where my grief cannot be undone. I have reached that tipping point and cannot go back, no matter how much I try to guard myself against future exposure to the relentless cycle of bad news. I live alongside my grief, even as I go to church each week and declare my faith in a God who resurrects and redeems the world. What does it mean, then, to be hopeful?
If you’re aware of the climate crisis and want to respond, I’m afraid that most of the time you won’t feel hopeful at all. Feeling hopeful has very little to do with being hopeful. We identify ourselves as hopeful people by the choices we make. Specifically, we identify ourselves as hopeful people by the decision to live as though a new creation is coming in, whether that feels possible or not. Hope, much like love, is a choice. If you’re constantly looking for things that will make you feel hopeful, you’re going to hurt yourself and others around you. If hope is a choice, you can invite people in to make that choice too.
Importantly, hopeful living does not replace our grief. In a time of climate breakdown, hopeful living needs our grief and anger. Why? Because grief and anger declare knowledge of an alternative. Anger and grief are not just accurate expressions of the state of things but also a tool for change. They remind us that this greed, destruction, and death is a choice – is sin. It doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to turn back.
I choose to be hopeful, even on the days I do not feel hopeful at all. I choose to believe that what we do on earth matters, even if we cannot now reverse the tide of death that we face. That is because we are in the business of resurrection – the business of bringing life out of death.
How can we be hopeful even when we don’t feel hopeful? What might being hopeful look like for you in the context of the climate crisis?
Today’s reflection was written by Hannah Malcolm. Hannah is currently training to be an Anglican Priest, whilst writing a PhD on a theology of grieving nature.