During the Covid-19 pandemic, humans have had to confront one of the most profound circumstances of human grief. The grave sickness, then lonely death of many of our elderly in locked-down nursing homes or in isolation in intensive care units in hospitals has meant that many of the relatives and friends have not been able to be close to their loved ones in their last moments in life. Such bereavement is at the heart of the meaning of grief.
Further, the post-death period, especially for the relatives of deceased loved ones, has been an isolating and alienating experience. In many countries, during the worst of the pandemic, victims of Covid-19 have been buried in mass burial locations with no relatives in attendance. No ceremony, no recognition of passage. No witnessing. Grief layered on grief.
At the height of this pandemic, no proper grieving rituals or experience of the stages of grief have been possible. Even ‘acceptance’ is difficult in a context where planning, security and equipment inadequacies have made a Covid-19 death one that has been clouded with issues of culpability and negligence. Grief with no acceptance, even for the death of the frail-aged.
It is a devaluation of the human concept of grief to apply it to the realm of the climate. The climate is not a person, the climate does not die. It does not suffer before death. It has no close relatives that miss the physical contact and everyday communication that humans had before death takes away that intimate contact. As the climate changes, there may be new forms of distress and sadness, but there can be no bereavement.
The need for novel concepts for our emotions is driven by the emergence of new contexts where our older emotional choreography no longer applies. People who personally experience profound negative change in their home environments struggle to give expression to what they are feeling. As Pete Muller reports on the experience of a woman in Louisiana USA:
For those who endure the trauma of losing a landscape, the emotions can be wrenching to express. “The pain of losing a land is totally different than any other pain, because it is difficult to share,” Chantel Comardelle tells me when I visit her community on the coast of Louisiana, where the sea is rising at an alarming rate and flooding the land. Comardelle was born on Isle de Jean Charles, a dwindling island that has lost 98 percent of its land since 1955. During her parents’ generation, the island’s mostly Native American inhabitants hunted and farmed. Now many families have left. The community has fractured. “It’s not like losing a loved one or something that other people easily understand,” she says.
I suggest that those who see the appropriate response to climate change as a grieving process are evading the critical issue of mitigation of the carbon problem. By fixating on grief and its supposed impact on people in the context of climate change, there is an individualizing and internalizing tendency that can be seen as part of an attempted therapeutic response.
A more genuine ‘therapy’, if that word is acceptable, is to see climate change as a problem that can be ‘fixed’ by political decision-making. It is an ongoing problem with collective dimensions requiring a collective response.
Covid-19 has, unfortunately, provided humanity a powerful, public and private experience of genuine grief, as, by late August 2020, nearly one million people world-wide have died of coronavirus. Climate warming is also a public experience but it lacks the key dimensions of profound grief … personhood and death.
Hypothetically, if the climate ‘dies’, there will be no humans on Earth to mourn its passing. Our task, as living humans with an eye on the future for our descendants, is to make sure they have a climate that fully supports life and vitality. That task is one requiring political commitment, not grief.
[Aerial view of coffins being buried in mass graves in Brazil (Image: AFP via Getty Images)]