'Death is our last great taboo. We don’t like to talk about it, even with our partners. We medicalise it, as though it’s something unnatural or curable. An event that used to be about family, community, and spirituality has been pushed out of sight.'

We must learn to grieve our planet before we can save it

Alex Evans

Alex Evans on how our disinterest in climate change is linked to society's fear of death

16 October 2018 17:42

It’s a week since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told the world that we have just 12 years to avoid a catastrophic climate breakdown. You’d think we’d be discussing little else. But we’re not.

On the morning of the IPCC report’s publication, only two British papers put the story on their front page – compared to seven that led with news of a kiss between two stars of Strictly Come Dancing.

Remember the week after 9/11, when we talked of nothing else? Or the week after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, or the week after the Brexit result? How is it that the news we have 12 years to save the world – literally – doesn’t elicit the same reaction?

There’s even data to suggest that the more we all learn about the science of climate change, the less concerned we become. In the US, acceptance of climate science is the highest it’s ever been – yet environment still ranked third lowest in voter priorities during the 2016 election.

I have a hunch that something much deeper is going on in our collective inability to get to grips with climate change than just the fact that humans aren’t great at highly complex or very long-term problems. And I think it has to do with our society’s problem with death.

There’s data to suggest that the more we all learn about the science of climate change, the less concerned we become.

Death is our last great taboo. We don’t like to talk about it, even with our partners. We medicalise it, as though it’s something unnatural or curable. An event that used to be about family, community and spirituality has been pushed out of sight.

And with the steep decline in religious observance of recent decades, we’ve also lost many of the systems we used to have for coping with death – from rituals to help the dying and those left behind, to deep stories about what happens after we die.

If we struggle with death at personal level, then how much more so when we’re facing loss at the planetary level – at the very least, the passing of the way of life we’ve come to know as normal, and perhaps even the end of our civilisation?

Instead, we distract ourselves, with Strictly or with social media.

Or we engage in denial – whether denying that climate change is real, or the more subtle form of denial that’s relentlessly upbeat, insisting that we’re winning the battle, and that, with just a touch more political will, we’ll find ourselves in a utopia of trees, smart homes, and electric cars.

Or we slide into defeatism – the idea that climate change is no more than our just deserts, and that if humanity gets wiped out because of it, then perhaps that’s for the best. As John Gray puts it in Straw Dogs, ‘humans are like any other plague animal … [mankind] seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth – and thereby be the agent of its own destruction’. Or as Stephen Emmott says more succinctly in Ten Billion, ‘I think we’re fucked.’

Death is our last great taboo.

Or we just become depressed. With no collective outlet for the anxiety, fear, and deep sadness that climate breakdown inevitably involves, each of us is left to carry this weighty emotional burden on our own. James Hillman, until his death in 2011 the unofficial dean of Jungian psychotherapy, once observed that:

‘The depression we’re all trying to avoid could very well be a prolonged chronic reaction to what we’ve been doing to the world… We may be depressed partly because this is the soul’s reaction to the mourning and grieving that we’re not consciously doing.’

So how would we move past these flawed attempts to cope with the deep sense of loss that climate change entails? In a word, by grieving.

Grieving can be a cathartic, even a transformational process – but not if we try to avoid or suppress it. And there’s also the factor that bringing our grief into the open may, in some strange way, actually be the key to unlocking the resolve on climate change that’s so far eluded us.

For when grief is allowed out, it can wield an extraordinary power to connect deeply, far more than outrage or utopian visions of the future. Through years of conflict in Syria, it was the grief of seeing pictures of little Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach in 2015 that made the conflict real to people.

I witnessed something similar at a UN climate summit in 2013, where the usual bureaucratic tedium was punctured by an intervention from the Philippines’ chief negotiator, who’d just seen the devastating effects of Typhoon Haiyan on his home. As he described the impacts, he began to sob – and the normally arid atmosphere of UN summitry was transformed by the sudden revelation that this was what climate change actually meant.

While politicians and campaigners are often great at reality and hope, they’re usually terrible at grief.

And this is perhaps the most deepest point about grief: its power to reveal what’s true and what’s important. We often say that warnings like last week’s IPCC report are ‘apocalyptic’, in the ‘end of the world’ sense. But in fact, that’s not what apocalypse really means.

More accurately, an apocalypse is an uncovering, a disclosure of knowledge, a revelation – a transformational unveiling that brings with it not only the death of the old, but also the birth of something new. And, in that sense, climate change is very much an apocalyptic issue: one that involves facing up to reality, grieving a time of catastrophic loss, and nurturing hope for the future.

The theologian Walter Brueggemann observes that these three tasks – reality, grief, hope – were all core elements of the job performed by Old Testament prophets (in the books of Jeremiah, Lamentations and Isaiah, respectively). And he adds that while contemporary storytellers in the worlds of politics and campaigning are often great at reality and hope, they’re usually terrible at grief.

In our own times, against a backdrop not only of growing climate breakdown but also the loss of many of the old shared stories that used to hold our societies together, we may find that becoming willing to face and express our grief brings us together in new and unexpected ways – and to discover, like TS Eliot, that ‘…to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.’

'Death is our last great taboo. We don’t like to talk about it, even with our partners. We medicalise it, as though it’s something unnatural or curable. An event that used to be about family, community, and spirituality has been pushed out of sight.'