Talk given for Christian Climate Action’s ‘Climate and Colour’ webinar, which included leadership and reflections from Melanie Nazareth, Azariah France-Williams, Samantha Lindo, and Sarah-Jane Nii-Adjei. You can watch the full webinar here.
The last 10 years has seen a sudden and rapidly growing interest in naming our experiences of climate breakdown, ecological collapse, and animal extinction. There has been an explosion in the number of people reporting grief, anxiety, and traumatic stress as a result of the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, the ongoing loss of flora and fauna, or a growing awareness of the existential threat that climate breakdown represents. Descriptions of this trauma only recently emerged in English, though they have a longer human history. For many of us involved in climate activism, there is a tipping point for knowledge about a dying world, where 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.
What does climate grief have to do with a conversation about racism and climate justice? Our desire for climate justice does not emerge directly from scientific findings about global average temperature, but from our response to those findings. We respond to a dying world out of love, and fear. Grief, anxiety, anger, melancholia – these are the trigger points. We assume these responses – often called emotions – are spontaneous, natural reactions to the world around us, and so we encourage each other to express them as a healthy way of coping, or even a spur to change. But our emotional responses are not all equally good, or equally true. We learn how to respond to the world based on our experiences. Our contexts shape our expectations and values, and thus our responses as well. Grief is learned behaviour. We are constantly learning what is worthy of our grief, and what is not, and whose grief matters more to us. The ways emotions are expressed in the climate movement are a mirror of our underpinning experiences of the world – and these are experiences filtered by our access to power.
In May, Nylah Burton published an article for Vice with the title ‘People of Colour Experience Climate Grief More Deeply Than White People’. She wrote: ‘anyone can experience climate grief, regardless of their identity. But for us, our grief – and our anger – is rooted in centuries of painful history, and the current ecological violence hurled at our communities’. She powerfully presents a case for climate grief as racialised, focusing on her experience as a woman of colour. The histories of colonialism, genocide, slavery, and systemic racism are intertwined with the history of the earth, and she points out that these two histories – these two griefs – cannot be disentangled for black and brown people.
If this is true, then it must also be true of whiteness – that our history of colonialism, genocide, the slave trade, and perpetuating white supremacy cannot be disentangled from how we feel about the earth now. The grief of white people over the death of the earth is as much shaped by our experiences and histories as it is for our black and brown siblings. It is incumbent on those of us who are the product and beneficiaries of white supremacy to examine our climate grief critically, carefully, with a desire to orient ourselves to God’s purposes for grief, rather than our own. This is not to say that the emotions of white people are somehow more innately marred by sin than the emotions of people of colour. Rather, it is to say that sin feeds on power. And we must be watchful.
In January, the world looked on in horror as bush fires across Australia spiralled out of control. Australians huddled on beaches as the sky turned to smoke and ash. 28 people died, 150 homes were destroyed, and there was devastating loss to wildlife. The images of burnt animal bodies stuck on barbed wire fences rightly triggered fear and disgust. People from across the globe sent outpourings of love, prayer, and donations, as they should. I lay awake at night, sleepless with dread, as I followed updates on the destruction. I prayed for rain. I have no Australian family and have never visited the country. But I felt compelled to participate in the groaning of Australian Earth.
In April, 80,000 people were displaced by heavy flooding in the South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. 15,000 homes were destroyed, and we do not know exactly how many died. The province is home to nearly one million internally displaced people, a result of ongoing civil war, funded by slave labour mining which repeatedly and persistently destroys the earth and her creatures, human and non-human. Violence and poverty have driven the illegal bushmeat trade, with over a million tons of wild animals killed every year. The story of ecological destruction in that country is the story of technological wealth in the west. I have Congolese family members who arrived in the UK as teenage refugees and were cared for by my parents. The story of that country is part of the story of my family. And when I heard about the flooding, I felt a pang of shock, of sadness. I sent some money. And then I forgot about it.
Whose grief merits our attention?
I am not trying to directly compare the severity of events in Australia and the Congo, nor am I saying that it is inherently wrong to feel more grief for one than the other. We are finite creatures, who cannot and should not be expected to respond to every death in a dying world in the same way. Our social networks influence us to feel grief about something we hear more about, or events that feel more unusual. If grief is an expression of love, our grief takes on the shape of the places and creatures to whom we intimately belong. Our losses are particular – creatures, seasons and rhythms, futures, forests that we know, or feel connected to. This is not intrinsically sinful. But our feelings of grief are not just bound by space. They are racialised, politicised. We are taught – through exposure, through culture – to feel greater empathy for those with proximity to power, even while knowing that they have, in real, measurable terms, suffered less. Those places on the Earth where wounds are deeper, more intransigent, inextricably woven into history, are also those whose wounds are not grieved in public.
I think we are slowly beginning to acknowledge that the grief of some humans is heard, makes headlines, and provokes response more readily than others – and we are trying to make restitution for this. But we have yet to fully accept the ways whiteness also manifests in the content of our grief.
What do we grieve, and why?
Climate grief in the minority world – the predominantly white world – is often characterised by grief over the future. Again, this is not wrong in itself. People across the whole Earth share this fear for the wellbeing of their children, or grandchildren. But at least part of what we grieve is the loss of luxuries and possessions which we have only received as a result of violence: slavery, colonialism, neoliberal capitalism, our insatiable greed – the very sources of the destruction of the Earth have created the conditions whose loss we now mourn.
Perhaps you’re thinking no – you misunderstand – I’d happily give up those false comforts to create a sustainable future! I’m not grieving the loss of foreign holidays and new clothes, I’m grieving the collapse of civilisation, the death of the Earth! And I am sure that for many that’s true. But even our apocalyptic fears are racialised. We know, deep down, that we will not be on the wrong side of the sea walls which shut out climate migrants. We risk losing a stability that many people in the majority world have already had taken away, and which grows increasingly improbable in the future.
A related example of how whiteness shapes climate grief is in how easily we express despair. Climate doomerism in the minority world is a kind of hubris: this despair rests on the assumption that the future is known, and nothing can be done. Whiteness is founded on the assumption of a superior capacity for rule, seized through violence against land and people. We have imagined ourselves as the great problem solvers and architects of the earth. Perhaps we are now pricked by guilt at the cost of our position, but we still assume that our position is the one from which improvement, or even salvation, will emerge – that is, if it is to emerge at all. It should not surprise us that when we fail to prevent the continued assault on our fellow creatures, we struggle to imagine that an alternative other than destruction is possible. The growing dominance of despair narratives is a warning to us that our grief both reflects our power and wields it. As I sit in the heart of global wealth accumulation, I can picture the future and assume that I will live to see it. We are never the ones who die first. And, as those with greater proximity to power, our despair threatens the flourishing of others.
And what about those emotions associated with climate activism that are not grief, or fear, or despair?
It is not just climate grief that participates in whiteness, but other emotions associated with activism. Unaccustomed to powerlessness, easily prone to despair, we seek the kind of emotional relief that can only be produced by feeling that we have sacrificed part of ourselves for the greater good. I have closely followed the stories of white activists experiencing euphoric peace and joy while getting arrested or sitting in the cell of a police station. Not fear, or anger, or sadness, but something akin to happiness in the midst of otherwise painful feelings of frustration and sorrow. I don’t think those feelings are intrinsically wrong, and I do not say this as a criticism of those who have been arrested – on the contrary, I am very grateful for the commitment you have made to climate activism, and I believe that white clergy in particular should be more willing to take that risk. But we must admit that such feelings – buoyed as they are by a relative lack of threat – are possible because of our proximity to power. Talking about those experiences as though they are universal – or even common – for encounters with law enforcement exposes the narrowness of the movement. More insidiously, it implies that sacrifice for the climate movement should be accompanied by peace and joy, as a mark of its holiness. But holiness is not and cannot be understood through the lens of whiteness.
Our climate grief is a moral problem – a spiritual problem. If grief can wield dangerous power, it is not good enough to treat all of our feelings as simply ‘natural’, and therefore innately worthy of expression. The question of who grieves, and how, and what, is a question the Church must take seriously. We are, after all disciples of the man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief. But so long as we treat our grief (and especially grief rooted in our proximity to power) as innate, or natural, or above question, we will be unable to listen to our teacher. If, instead, we understand grief as learned behaviour, we can learn to follow Christ, who gave up power in order to dwell amongst us. We will not be guided by white supremacy’s desire for self-preservation, but by the One who blesses those who weep. If sin is manifest in our reactions as well as our actions, then, as the Apostle Paul instructs, let us be transformed by the renewing of our minds: to grieve with humility, not hubris.