Reclaiming my Voice: getting through climate grief

A week or so ago I wrote that I was struggling to write – ironic, I know – and I didn’t write much on that occasion. It was because there was so much to say that I didn’t know where to begin. And because I didn’t want the floodgates to open for fear that I might not be able to close them or that people might realise I was woefully depressed.

But this morning I woke up with an epiphany: I’m not depressed per se, I’m grieving. I’m grieving for the planet and that grief includes sadness, anger, emptiness, hopelessness, and more. It all looks a lot like depression, especially when outbursts occur: crying or raging over relatively small things. When you’re grieving there’s not much capacity left for anything else. Tolerance becomes a scarce commodity.

I know I’m not alone in this climate grief as yesterday I joined an Extinction Rebellion action which reinforced that knowledge. I was with others who are also struggling at this festive time of the year to put up a Christmas tree or to feel joyful at all. I would normally go all out with decorations, making sure each room of the house got the festive treatment, singing along to carols as I go, coaxing the whole family to get involved. But this year, I’ve done all but nothing.

I couldn’t resist my small collection of Christmas tins though, which has been growing over the years with the addition of a Santa house tin being the latest acquisition last year, found by my daughter in our local Save the Children op shop.

Cake, chocolate, and biscuit tins with Christmas motifs - the total extent of my Christmas decorating this year.

When I got the invitation to join XR in a #MerryCrisis carolling event in Rundle Mall it really resonated with me. And going by the responses of people in the mall, it resonated with a lot people, with many stopping to take photos and video and to talk to our ‘Ask Me’ volunteers or to sign the petition to South Australia’s Parliament, calling on the House of Assemby (AKA ‘Lower House’) to pass a resolution declaring a #ClimateEmergency.

Meanwhile I was with the choir singing carols with climate action words put to the Christmas tunes. Alongside us, was a large Extinction Rebellion banner and a number of ‘nude’ people holding posters about climate change being exposed. It was quite powerful in that it invited interaction.

It feels good to express yourself and to be heard and I encourage anyone experiencing challenging feelings about climate change to find a way to be engaged with it.

Maybe singing is not for you but there will be something that is. Maybe, like me, you feel better when you write but it might not be writing; it might be drawing or painting or music. Or perhaps you’re a more active sort who would express themselves better with banner wrangling or logistics support. Being involved in activism can connect with that deep part of you that wants to be sure that you’ve done all you can to save the ‘wonders of this Earth’, to quote one of the carols we sang.

As Australia burns more people begin to wake up. With one week of extreme heat in South Australia, and just a day of fires, we have two dead. Two firefighters in New South Wales have died fighting fires and many more people have lost homes and property. And still the fire rages.

We were extremely grieved last night to learn that the Gospers mega fire is very close to family members and that one of their extended family nearly lost their home in this preventable tragedy.

That heavy, compressed feeling comes over my chest, my breathing becomes shallow: this is grief and fear and anger. The extreme heat itself is enough to cause death. Anyone could be next. And this is not to mention the wildlife and stock that have been lost. In the fires we’ve seen koalas on the news reports but that isn’t even close to representative of the animal deaths in these fires. All sorts of creatures, tiny and large, land and water based, have lost their lives or homes in the heat and fires because people have failed to curtail climate change. Fire is a natural event, yes, but the intensity, timing, and duration of the fires we’re experiencing now is unprecedented and it’s due to climate change effects.

The worst part is that the loss of forests, some of which are cool/wet and have never burnt before, compounds climate change. There are now fewer trees than before to take the carbon out of the atmosphere. There are fewer trees than before to generate their own rainfall patterns, to clean the air of pollutants, to hold the soil moisture, to prevent erosion and loss of topsoil. With fewer trees the likelihood of more fires is greater.

If we look to the Californian experience we see that savage fires like these can even be followed in the winter months by storms and flooding. With the trees no longer present to hold the soil together, this can lead to mudslides on steeper slopes, leading to even more damaging effects.

This is what climate change looks like: it’s chaos.

And this is with only average global warming of 1.1°C. Even if all countries meet the Paris targets, which the Australian Government seems determined not to do, the planet will warm by 2.8°C. The targets are not enough and yet at COP25 several nations, including Australia, refused to commit to even that.

I can’t tell you how angry that makes me. This has all been predicted and warned about for decades and largely ignored. I can’t express the ferocity I have about this. It is as fierce as the fires racing up every peak, raging over everything, throwing itself kilometres and spreading with no predictability.

And at other times I am as cold as Alaska and Antarctica should be and just as close to my tipping point.

And this is a reasonable response. It is. It’s not illogical. It’s not crazy. This is a rational response to a situation that should not be happening. This is how people feel in a war zone. The injustice of it, the futility.

How do we combat this assault on our mental health and wellbeing?

One way is to be kind to yourself. It’s ok to feel this way. It’s ok to feel however you feel: fearful, anxious, angry, frozen, frenetic, sad, depressed, or other feelings. Treat yourself as kindly as you would a friend who is in distress. Be accepting, patient and understanding of yourself.

Another tool in my wellbeing kit is yoga, which I’ve been doing for over twenty years. The combination of movement and stillness of Hatha Yoga is crucial for connecting back to myself, to the earth, and to now.

I also practice gratitude. Each night before bed I write down three things that I’m grateful for and it refocuses my attention on what’s good. Gratitude practice has been shown in research to be highly effective in improving mood and life satisfaction in the short and long term. Good resources can be found on the SAHMRI Wellbeing and Resilience Centre website, including details about the PERMA model: Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. I’ve found it very useful to purposefully incorporate PERMA practices into my daily life to improve my resilience and mood, and research shows it’s likely to work for you too.

I also meditate most days and the most successful of these are when I incorporate mindfulness. During the day I also bring myself back to the present moment as often as I remember, so that I can to be in the here and now. Anxiety is associated with imagining the future while depression is associated with dwelling on the past. With climate change both can occur, with regrets or frustration about missed opportunities, or with fear and anger for the possibilities of the future.

Exercising is another really effective way to resolve the chemical stress in our bodies that builds up when we feel anxious or depressed. I like to walk and it’s a great way to alleviate the symptoms of climate stress as well as keep physically fit. Gardening is another favourite exercise of mine and there’s research to indicate that it helps alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. When you get your hands dirty and breathe in the soil of your humble garden patch the soil bacterium triggers the release of serotonin, the feel-good chemical that improves mood. Soil and plants capture carbon from the atmosphere and composting prevents the release of methane that would otherwise occur when food and plant waste rots in landfill. It’s win, win, win for your physical health, mental health, and carbon reduction, the thing that lead us here in the first place. See Sophie’s Patch for more inspiration.

We could combat climate change. We have the technology, we have had it for decades and it’s getting better all the time, despite lack of government investment. Instead the solutions have been backed by private investors: large scale and small scale, like you and me; by superannuation that doesn’t support fossil fuels; through investment of small nest eggs and large joint ventures. We CAN do it. We can limit the future carnage of the Earth. But only if we act right now.

All that’s missing is government will. And how do we change a government’s mind about something? We tell them loudly, clearly, repeatedly, creatively, we want climate action, and we want it now. We cannot sustain the assault to country, to our bodies, our minds, and our hearts that climate change brings.

We cannot let ourselves be governed by fossil fools or fear of the lifestyle changes that climate action will bring. These are minuscule compared to the catastrophic impacts that climate change is already beginning to bring. There’s no more time for: ‘yeah, but’. We must embrace a new way of living or accept that life will end. The choice is simple: life or death.

© Palitja Moore, text and image, 2019

2 comments

  1. It is certainly a depressing time at the moment but all we can do is keep trying to be heard and fighting for change. I keep hoping that the positive in all this will be that Australia and those in power will finally wake up and take notice.

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