When It Comes to Climate Change, Grief Is More Useful Than Empty Nostalgia
We are already living in a changed world. Giving yourself time and space to grieve is important. But grief can also be a powerful tool for motivation.
Just how bad the worst-case scenario?
The Uninhabitable Earthme.really
Last Chance to SeeHitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Last Chance to See,
Last Chance to See focuses on vanishing animals, what we think of first when we hear the word “extinct.” Even so, it is nearly impossible to grasp the reality of extinction, the reality of gone. Though separated from each other by tens of thousands of years, the dinosaurs and the dodo vanished in our collective minds a generically “long time ago,” parables uncovered by paintbrushes in dirt.
On top of that temporal disconnect, it is difficult to fathom the magnitude of extinction and species loss today. Estimates of the current extinction rate range wildly from twenty-four to two hundred species lost each day; occurring, so we believe, mostly among small species of plants and insects and fungi, and mostly on small islands with small gene pools. Even the large and lovable creatures that Adams and Carwardine sought (known wryly by scientists as charismatic megafauna) were only accessible after harrowing journeys deep into jungles, along paths few of us can take. Like climate change, extinction is challenging to see and understand; it is something we wrongly think happens far away, or in another time, to someone else—perhaps, darkly, to people with smaller lives than our own. Like climate change, trying to capture the magnitude of loss only adds a host of inconceivably large numbers to add to the glazing of eyes.
As hard as species losses are to intuit, there are other kinds of extinction that may be even harder to imagine, dying moments more difficult to pinpoint. While studying abroad, I snorkeled along the Great Barrier Reef, an activity I repeated fifteen years later when traveling to a friend’s wedding in Australia. The difference between these two experiences was stark: the first, an almost choking abundance of life and color, like a musical number in The Little Mermaid; the second, a hunt and peck across brown corals for a gasping glimpse of tropical color. Last summer, on a trip to see a friend in Kenya, I was lucky enough to spot the snows of Kilimanjaro above the layers of cloud. Knowing the glaciers will be gone in my lifetime, I was ready to be mystified or to feel some sting of poignancy. But the snow was a thin crust, just the luminous suggestion of lingering white hair on top of a nearly bald head.
These sorts of disappointments result in a different response than the rubberneckers blinking at their worst-case scenario at the side of a road. Instead of gruesome transfixion to the evidence of climate change before me, what I felt at these places of wonder was a ruefulness for glory days. How sad, maybe sadder than complete erasure, that the Great Barrier Reef, which once evoked sheer marvel, is in the process of crumbling to descriptions of “neat,” on its way to “meh”? How tragic that the once storied and treacherous ice cap of the white mountain is relegated to a wistful “You shoulda seen it back in the day!”
It is nearly impossible to grasp the reality of extinction, the reality of gone.
It’s important to note that I am merely a tourist in these places; I cannot speak of the cultural losses that accompany these changes. In my own country, I can know some of what it feels like to watch the Outer Banks slip underwater, Glacier and Joshua Tree National Parks lose their namesakes, swaths of California burn. To make a list of the Last Chance to See places is to formulate a treasure hunt, kernels to form a travel itinerary around, though the bounty is always diminishing.
Of course, it isn’t just places that are disappearing. Some of my childhood experiences will not be shared by my nieces and nephews—the sweet cool relief of summer evenings catching fireflies; the white clouds of trick-or-treaters’ pants of anticipation for the door to open on chilly Halloween nights; the pond in my backyard freezing enough to play hockey with the neighbors. When is the last chance to swim in the lake before it is overrun with pathogens, the last chance to play in the basement before it gets flooded yet again, the last chance to celebrate my July birthday outside?
It seems almost sappy to long for long winters and recall temperate summers with the same tone I use to recall Michael Jordan making the prayer of a shot at the buzzer. Nostalgia has this wistful, almost silly nature to it, a tendency to over-romanticize the past and remember it better than it is today. It has only been in the last couple years, in hearing the voices of fellow climate scientists talk about the emotional toll of climate change, that I realized there is more to these pangs of loss than mere nostalgia. What I am feeling when I struggle with my work—as the Arctic melts, Greenland burns, New Orleans drowns, Paris melts—is grief. And there is nothing silly or overly romantic about it.
In a seminal article by physicist Kate Marvel on courage in the face of climate change, she writes: “We are inevitably sending our children to live on an unfamiliar planet. But the opposite of hope is not despair. It is grief. Even while resolving to limit the damage, we can mourn.”
To make a list of Last Chance to See places is to formulate a treasure hunt, though the bounty is always diminishing.
Nostalgia is rueful because it remembers something great in the past, with no expectation that the greatness should persist. I would not expect Nadia Comaneci to fly on the uneven bars or Billie Jean King to smash a tennis ball or Abby Wambach to throw her face in the way of an oncoming header 100 years after their glory days. Grief, though, is the sorrow that something should still be here, yet is not. There is a gulf of remorse between “you shoulda seen it” and “you should be able to see it, but you can’t.” Grief can also be the pain of a potential future forsaken: My dear mother-in-law Rita doesn’t cry because she misses the great works made by Sellers, Hartman, and Adams—she is upset about the art they could have produced if they’d only had more time. We were robbed.
We may all be at different stages of our grieving, as evidenced by bountiful denial and anger, but this won’t negate the fact that we are already living in a changed world. Giving yourself time and space to grieve is important. But grief can also be a powerful tool for motivation.
I was recently asked how I came to be interested in working on climate change while speaking at a grade school about the impacts of warming on extreme weather. The students wanted to know what had motivated me. I told them that in college, I looked for the biggest, worst problem I could find. In grad school, I asked myself, What’s the worst-case scenario? I focused on the most terrible threat I could see, with the most to lose, the most to grieve should we fail to act. I asked myself the same macabre questions I’m asked by young people today, then steered myself towards tackling the most grievous answer.
Before you ask for apocalyptic portents from the climate scientist at your next cocktail party, know that there isn’t an ending to the story where everything turns out all right for all the characters. Since I began my career working on climate change, the impacts scientists have warned of for the last fifty years have turned a corner, from something that will happen far off in the future to something happening right here, right now, to all of us. As Marvel notes, there will be losses; there will be extinctions we are too late to stop, Last Chances to See to mourn.
Perhaps we all feel the full spectrum of Last Chance to See emotions, from gloom to nostalgia to grief, at times. Perhaps there is not so much difference between watching a car crash, turning the pages of an old photo album, or placing an urn on the mantel. What is similar about these three responses is that they are all passive, the sad observance of a catastrophe that one can’t affect or change. But that way of thinking about our environment is dangerous and wrong.
Climate change is a huge problem, but it is also solvable. Inaction is the insidious side effect of treating the loss of species, habitats, and experiences like someone else’s horror that we only ogle as we drive by. We are overly fatalistic if we relegate our natural world to nostalgia, something fleeting we are lucky to experience but unable to affect. And while we all need to grieve in our own time and our own ways—because there will inevitably be loss—we can’t afford to let this grief stymie us. We are still eminently capable of facing this challenge.
We are overly fatalistic if we relegate our natural world to nostalgia, something fleeting we are lucky to experience but unable to affect.
What is the spark that moves someone from the passive cycles of grief to action? While many are still mired in the denial and anger stages of climate change, there has been a slow shift in the arguments of those people in the bargaining stages of their grief. Over the last decade or two, “The climate isn’t changing” has evolved to “It’s changing but it’s not us,” then to “It’s us, but there is nothing we can do about it.” We have a new term—“solastalgia”—for the depression stage of our collective grief. But the final stage, that Last Chance to See brand of acceptance, is not enough. We need a sixth stage.
I often end my talks to students by reminding them we are still getting our energy the same way prehistoric humans did: by burning things. Aren’t we more creative than that? I ask. Can’t we do better?
In one sense, I want them to feel how embarrassing, how “uncool” it is that people who have landed on the moon and developed iPhones have not progressed beyond this archaic practice. But mostly, I want to give them license to be more creative; to question the underlying architecture; to imagine a best-case scenario, a time when the urgency behind these talks I have with students has gone the same way as the ozone hole, acid rain, and other environmental successes now fading from our memory: toward extinction.