Facing Ecological Grief Together

To be totally honest, this isn’t the essay I planned to write for this week’s Deepening Resilience contribution.

My original essay attempted to capture the outrage I feel about watching ecological collapse, the powerlessness, the despair, the existentialism, and the resentment. I aimed to analyze, to rally, to accuse, to center again the magnitude of this moment and this crisis beyond what any one or group of us may experience even in the total loss of our homes and way of life. It is not merely that our towns are being flooded or choked out by wildfires. The problem is systemic. Webs of wildlife everywhere are being torn from one another, and all the vital connections between life are breaking at the enormity of ecological destruction happening on the ecosystem level where we witness them.

The catastrophe colloquially called ‘climate change’ is matched in immensity by the breadth of human emotional responses to it. From denial to numbness to anger and everything else, we are intimately feeling our planet’s health. But the more I write about this, the more I realize that identifying the problem isn’t really the answer we need most right now.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a definite time to write educational pieces, alarming pieces, and articles that confront the scale of our situation to keep us humble, informed, and ready to take action. But that’s the key: don’t we need to spend this precious time doing something about our environmental problems, rather than just talking about them?

A Little Less Weather Forecasting…

There’s a time and a place for identifying and calling attention to problems. The cynic in me would remark that the best time and place was all over the world following the greenhouse gas effect research of scientists like Svante Arrhenius in the late 1800s. But here we are, witnessing the disruptions of human-driven global warming over a hundred years later, and maybe—more than maybe—it’s time to change course. It’s one thing to look to the horizon and alert everyone about the coming storm. It’s another to formulate a plan, lead preparations, and pick up the slack where governmental and social institutions prove unwilling to help.

In that spirit, I’ve been brainstorming more and more about what we can actually do, rather than just what we can say or write or think.

When disaster strikes our communities, barriers break down and people help one another. There’s something equalizing about floods and other climate disasters that overwrite the alienation we may otherwise feel from our neighbors, and push us to act together for survival. Certainly there are infrastructural design injustices that direct the impact of natural disasters and recovery, but on an interpersonal level, neighbor to neighbor, these moments make us realize we are in it together.

Frantic news alerts and popular articles on the dire nature of ecological disaster bring us together too. But rather than finding unity in mutual support for one another, these sources often leave us in a shared state of panic or solution-shutdown. These days it’s absurd to deny climate change. We’re all aware of the problem to at least some degree. What people need right now are strategies to get them engaged with resolving these problems. We need resilience—in actionable not just abstract terms—to be as popular as the alarm bells sounding on the scope of ecological crisis.

Human-driven climate change has been scientifically conceptualized for more than one hundred years. And it’s been discussed on an informative level for at least as long as the millennial generation has been alive. What’s next—and what I think is the best way to focus our emotional responses into positive change—is to engage one another and our ecosystems in real, tangible healing work to correct the course of our species.

First, Let’s Bombard Facts with Connection

A lot of the articles out there on Earth’s state of crisis energetically read to me as very cold. I’m often left feeling informed about the severity of various issues, but totally disempowered about how to engage. I feel numb and chilled after reading pieces like The New York Times Magazine’s The Insect Apocalypse is Here. And I believe this is fairly common for millennials.

My first memories of ‘global warming’ talk are from elementary school where we learned paragraph structure and the basics of how to write an essay through reading sample articles about the Earth’s rising temperatures. Whenever that topic brought up anxiety, our teachers assured us that everyday we were in school there were thousands of scientists going to work around the world to solve these problems for us. The realization that we were perhaps right to panic then, that previous generations have not resolved this crisis while we were growing up now leaves us feeling guilty and scrambling to pick up the kind of species-stewardship we expected of our parents.

We can tell you all about insect population loss, why wild bees need to be ‘saved’ more than honeybees, the greenhouse gas footprint of industrial animal agriculture, and more, but what we really struggle with is finding solutions that are just as supported by research and accessible on a very personal level. This leaves many of us feeling disempowered and overwhelmed by the scale of the problem compared to what we feel capable of doing about it. And on top of that, every moment can feel like a missed opportunity for something urgent we’ll regret not having done in the future.

“We have to stop congratulating ourselves for recognizing a problem, and start challenging ourselves to do something about it.”

To warm up the energy here, connection feels key. Especially with millennials, I think we struggle with a formidable disconnect when it comes to climate change. For all our lives, we’ve been told that someone else—scientists, policy-makers, businesses—is handling this for us. That didn’t happen. So for us now, connecting to the issue and to each other through organizing ourselves in response can feel counter-intuitive to how we’ve been raised to approach ecological issues. I see this disconnect in the way we use social media to draw attention to issues we wish other people were tackling. It’s in the way we resort to buzzwords and on-brand phrases like ‘equality’ ‘regenerative’ ‘sustainable’ or ‘focus on capitalism,’ rather than specific goals which can be measured and achieved. And it’s in the way we start and finish with high level ideas while insisting that personal and interpersonal work is unnecessary or even problematic.

We push a lot of energy outside ourselves because we’ve been raised to see the world’s problems as things that aren’t ours to own, take responsibility for, or seriously address. But pushing the problem into resentment of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, or onto abstract ideas like capitalism alone is wasting the little time we have left to do something about climate change on responses which don’t really bring resolution forward. We have to stop congratulating ourselves for recognizing a problem, and start challenging ourselves to do something about it.

We absolutely need to stay connected to the cutting edge of climate research, but as assertive mediators not as jaded children. Older generations are counting on us to interpret data and walk them through lifestyle changes, while younger generations are looking to us for solidarity in forcing policy-makers to make more radical, immediate infrastructural shifts. We have to connect to solutions and empowerment. We need to see ourselves as one vital piece of an intergenerational puzzle—not a failed or lost generation, and not alone against the world.

Beyond connecting to the issues themselves, social connection is critical. Connecting face-to-face with our neighbors and friends around local experiences of the ecological crisis introduces new ideas on how to resolve them—more so than sharing articles or commentary on social media. It diffuses labor, allows for specialization, and makes available new social structures to bolster resilience. It’s easier to make ecosystem defense and regeneration a bite-sized task when we can count on many hands and minds working together to face the problem, rather than just reading about it and feeling like one lone individual against it all. If your community is recovering from disaster, grief circles and mutual aid organizing may be ways you express social connection. If your community has not yet been impacted directly, maybe try organizing a neighborhood disaster prep meeting—or if that’s too serious-sounding, connect with local gardeners and start talking about bees and weather patterns.

Environmental connection is also critical. While some will argue that the problem before us is more systemic than personal, I think it would be extremely misguided to believe humanity can survive this moment without profoundly personal lifestyle changes. Connecting to our environment—our backyard, our neighborhood, our waste, our greenhouse gas footprint—connects us to actions we can take towards resilience.

No one else is going to do this work for us. No policy is going to be specific enough to meet all the needs of every ecological niche. For better or worse, we’re up. We’re the people who must care and must act if we want things to change.

So, Get Some Roots In the Ground

Planting is one of the easiest ideas I can think of. It doesn’t even involve any human-to-human social interactions. Although, if you live close to other people in your neighborhood, it’s also a quick way to learn who the other neighborhood gardeners are and to connect with neighbors on issues deeper than the roots of ornamental lawn plants.

When you plant something, you’re showing that you care. You’re showing that your roots belong in this place where you live. You’re subconsciously telling yourself that you believe you’re going to live long enough to see your seedlings come into bloom. You’re preserving the healthy atmosphere of this planet. And you’re telling all of this to the wildlife living near you too.

I’m serious. The wild bees we’re all learning to be more mindful of are dependent on all those native wildflowers we sometimes displace with lawns and exotic ornamentals. Native wildflowers are how native wildlife self-medicate, eat a healthy diet, and continue being the mostly invisible force behind pollinating our own food supply and keeping the ecosystem balanced.

If there’s one area you get involved with locally, I hope it’s in preserving the native wildlife local to you. Humanity needs more people who see the connections between us, pollinators, wildflowers, and other wildlife—and who take action to defend them.

But if not solely for these critters, then plant something for your own mental health too. There’s an old saying about how a garden is a prayer for a joyful tomorrows, and I think I can speak for all of us when I say we could use a joyful tomorrow. Plant anything, really. Plant something native for a wild pollinator to feed on. Plant something beautiful that makes you happy. Plant something you can eat, or something you’ll have to tend regularly so you’ll have to get out of your head everyday. Plant like Earth needs a billion people just like you to care enough to plant even one tree. It does. We do.

Not sure where to start? Read the Xerces Society’s Pollinator-Friendly Plant List.

If you don’t have a yard to plant in, consider a houseplant. Fill your windowsills and porches. Or get outside and dump seeds along the grass. Plant a tree. Get your family and friends to plant with you, or for you if you are housebound.

Embrace Slow & Small, Meaningful Solutions Together

This last idea is actually an adaptation of one of permaculture design’s guiding principles. So often I think we get locked into this mindset of universality and conformity, rather than pluralism and specificity. If we look to Earth for guidance, we know that not every ecosystem is exactly the same. Not every region of the planet is experiencing climate change in the exact same ways. Yes, sometimes we can make generalizations that work well for most everyone. But more often than not, I believe resolution of our present ecological crisis requires a hyper-local sensitivity and equally microscopic action to address it.

For the millennial and Z generations in particular, our opposition to capitalism is admirable, important, and a valid response to the world we find ourselves in. At the same time, one thing I think we could stand to internalize more from previous generations who have fought it is that capitalism is remarkably resilient and pervasive. Like any terrible system we seek to tear apart, dismantling it is not as simple as marching in the streets a few times, speaking out at a city council meeting, or electing someone more progressive to political office. It’s not a matter of reading all the right books, making all the right Facebook posts, or holding all the correct views on abstract political theory either.

Injustice, exploitation, oppression, and ecological destruction are ingrained into the way we conceptualize human society. And if there’s a major lesson to learn from the last hundred + years of uprooting these dominant ideologies from our lives, it’s that we must do the ground-work. We have to create new culture from the bottom-up, not the top-down. These are long-game fights.

To some degree, this can be disheartening. There’s not a single law or policy or elected official we all need to just jump behind in the next election in order to make everything better. The real work is much broader, slower, and complex. Similarly, the nature of our ecological crisis may appear to us in very individual forms like losing our homes to a super hurricane or preventable flood, but these instances of the crisis are part of a much larger feedback system of ecological collapse.

However, this piece is not about getting us lost in the shadow of any of these enormous monsters. Instead I want us to associate with the power of a virus or bacterium. To win big, we have to fight small. Think tiny. Think you. Think your home, your food, your waste, your watershed, your garden, and everyone you come into contact with regularly. Despite what the fiery speeches of us activist-types would have you believe, we don’t have all the pieces together for the big fights yet. If we did, our approach to climate change would be vastly different. Our grief would be vastly different. This moment can only successfully be about what it is that we can build together at a hyper-local level.

“Preparing for climate change offers us a dozen ways to strengthen bonds of solidarity on a hyper-local scale.”

Today’s ecological crisis demands it. When floods destroy a town, strand neighbors without homes, and shut-down food transportation, the immediate answer to our situation isn’t grandiose or abstract political agendas like ‘dismantle capitalism’ or ‘vote for Democrats next time,’ any more than it’s ‘believe in Jesus.’ Rather, these situations require tangible solutions, grounded in material support for one another like opening our doors and kitchens to each other. Preparing for and responding to climate change offers us a dozen ways to strengthen bonds of solidarity on a hyper-local scale.

No one else is coming to fix the water. No one else is coming to save the bees.

If we want to live through this, we have to see our way through the despair of these times. We have to pick the battles we can actually win. We have to fight alienation with earnest connection. We have to think and act like conscious members of our ecosystem. And we have to get comfortable in building change literally from the soil up, independent of the institutions that have consistently failed us.

This essay appears as part of the Deepening Resilience community blog project. Project coordinator Syren Nagakyrie and the project’s contributors are creating conversation on climate change and human responses to the issues our ecological crisis raises. Learn more or even submit your own thoughts at the blog project’s home page or Facebook group page.

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Pat Mosley (LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage therapist and life coach in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His work is especially focused on creating permaculture in his community, which sometimes looks like providing bodywork, and other times looks like writing or designing gardens for people and bees.

Get connected with him via email to info@pat-mosley.com