To Grieve or Not to Grieve?

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This is the third post in a series on “Canada’s Anthropocene,” with posts and a roundtable by Pamela BantingAshlee CunsoloAlan MacEachern, and Joshua MacFadyen. To read the entire series, click here

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The ecologist (in a more than scientific sense) is someone who is touched by this loss in such a way as to mourn the toll of extinction instituted by human exemptionalism and exceptionalism. She is bereft and yet also understands that this feeling, her being touched by irrevocable loss, is itself a matter of realizing the existence of a sense of ecological and ethical and political community with other species.[1]

TOUCHED BY LOSS

Nine years ago, I began working with Inuit in the community of Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Labrador on a community-led project on climate change and health. The community was interested in learning how changes in the land, weather, snow, ice, plants, and animals were impacting Inuit lives, livelihoods, culture, and wellbeing, and wanted to share, through digital media, film, and scholarly research, the deeply intrinsic relationships among the land and human emotional and mental wellbeing. For Inuit in Nunatsiavut, the land is everything. It’s kin. It’s freedom. It’s culture. It’s history. It’s healing. And it’s a place to understand what it really means to be human, by experiencing one’s self in the context of a larger ecological whole.[2]

Through this work, I had the privilege to listen to countless stories, from all different perspectives. Stories of deep love of land, place, culture, and community. Stories of strength and endurance, resilience and perseverance. And stories about sadness and despair, anxiety and fear, and loss—loss of ecosystems, of livelihoods, of knowledge systems, and of cultural connections, all stemming from changes in the climate and environment.

Since then, I find myself thinking a lot about loss. And grief. And about how we mourn and what we mourn. And about how what we choose to mourn tells us a lot about what we value, and to what we are connected. And about the ways in which some bodies seem to matter more than others when it comes to our individual and collective mourning.

Judith Butler writes about this in Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning & Violence. “Some lives are grievable,” she writes, “and others are not; the differential allocation of grievability that decides what kind of subject is and must be grieved, and which kind of subject must not, operates to produce and maintain certain exclusionary conceptions of … what counts as a livable life and a grievable death.”[3] Now, while Butler was here writing about human lives, more and more scholars, artists, activists, and those on the frontlines of environmental change are extending notions of grievability to the more-than-human worlds, and asking important questions about the role that grief can play in the Anthropocene.

A TIME OF LOSS

In many ways, the Anthropocene is characterized by significant ecological loss—loss of species, loss of biodiversity, loss of ecosystem productivity. And within these losses, it is becoming increasingly clear that there are the attendant experiences of grief, and the accompanying labours of mourning. Ecological grief is grief that emerges in response to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, species, and meaningful landscapes. What separates ecological grief from other forms of grief is that it is often grief without end, as it is grief experienced within the context of ongoing environmental changes, both acute and slow and creeping. This grief is anticipated, like other forms of climate-sensitive mental and emotional responses, to be widespread, profound, and cumulative.[4]

A few years ago, Jo Confino wrote an article for the Guardian about the ways in which grieving can offer a potential pathway out of environmentally destructive patterns. In it, he asks, Why aren’t we on the floor doubled up in pain at our capacity for industrial scale genocide of the world’s species?” He is not alone in asking this question.

An increasing number of individuals are sharing their various forms of and experiences with ecological grief, whether it be individuals on the frontlines (e.g. Inuit in Canada[5],[6],[7] or farmers in the Australian Wheatbelt[8]), or environmental scientists sharing on open forums about their own grief and pain (e.g. Is This How You Feel?), or scholars sharing theoretical, ethical, and political understandings of ecological grief (e.g. Mourning Nature: Hope at the Heart of Ecological Loss & Grief).

While grief is something which people often want to avoid, the work around ecological grief is pointing towards opportunities for mobilizing ecological grief for productive purposes, and to think with ecological grief to better understand how, as Butler writes, mourning can create “a sense of political community of a complex order…by bringing to the fore the relational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility.”[9]

Grief and mourning, when understood in this sense, have capacities to bring people together, and to understand our responsibilities to others with whom we share this earth, be they human or more-than-human. Further, ecological grief can be understood “as part of a restorative spiritual practice that can rekindle an awareness of the bond of all life-forms to one another, and to the larger ecological whole.”[10]

CANADA, ECOLOGICAL GRIEF, AND THE ANTHROPOCENE

Canada, in many ways, is a prototypical Anthropocene nation: contributing to the human impacts on this planet with one of the highest per capita carbon footprints; experiencing large scale, human-led activities leading to environmental degradation; and experiencing some of the most rapid climate-related changes in the world. Indeed, as an Arctic nation within a rapidly changing climate, Canada is on the frontlines of climate change, facing some of the most rapidly warming temperatures and greatest sea ice loss in the Circumpolar North.[11] Canada is subsequently also at the forefront of narratives around ecological loss and grief, as people—particularly those living in the North—are increasingly indicating strong responses of anxiety, sadness, distress, pain, and anger from the losses of beloved lands.

As we move deeper into the Anthropocene, it is likely that ecological grief will increasingly become a defining experience for more and more people through the country, particular those living in the North and those who rely most closely on the environment for sustenance and livelihoods. Within this context, Canada, as an Anthropocene nation, bears particular responsibilities to the peoples, cultures, lands, and ecosystems who are most impacted by climate change.

TO GRIEVE OR NOT TO GRIEVE?

Given it seems more and more likely that people will experience various forms of ecological grief, it is clear that grieving will be a reality — and not grieving is not desirable, even if it were possible. I believe that ecological mourning is a signature labour of the Anthropocene — a labour in which we must all engage as our species moves deeper into the Anthropocene. Do we “double up in pain” or do we harness this grief and our connections to that which is beyond the human to act, to find our “participation and responsibility” in the “larger ecological whole”? Do we continue on as is, or do we allow ecological mourning to become a resource for ethical and political change?

Now is the time to unite our voices and our scientific data, our theories and our experiences, our emotions and our ideas, to confront the ecological crises which we are facing, and allow our grief to start to be one important mechanism for change. While grief can be full of pain, it can also be full of resistance, of creativity, of collectivity, and of hope. And, if we begin now to speak of it, to prepare, and to share our experiences, it can also, as CM Parkes and HG Prigerson write, bring strength: “Just as broken bones may end up stronger than unbroken ones, so the experience of grieving can strengthen and bring maturity to those who have previously been protected from misfortune. The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love; it is, perhaps, the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment. To ignore this fact, or to pretend it is not so, is to put on emotional blinkers, which leave us unprepared for the losses that will inevitably occur in our lives and unprepared to help others to cope with the losses in theirs.” [12]


[1] M. Smith. (2013). Ecological community, the sense of the world, and senseless extinction. Environmental Humanities 2:21.

[2] A. Cunsolo. (2017). She was bereft. In A. Cunsolo and K. Landman (Eds.). Mourning Nature: Hope at the Heart of Ecological Loss & Grief, xiii-xxii. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

[3] J. Butler (2004). Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning & Violence, xvi.

[4] S. Clayton, C.M. Manning, K. Krygsman, M. Speiser. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica.

[5] A. Cunsolo Willox, S. Harper, J. Ford, K. Landman, K. Houle, V. Edge, et al. (2012). “From this place and of this place:” climate change, sense of place, and health in Nunatsiavut, Canada. Social Science and Medicine, 75(3): 538-547.

[6]A. Cunsolo Willox, S. Harper, J. Ford, V. Edge, K. Landman, K. Houle, et al. (2013). Climate change and mental health: an exploratory case study from Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Canada. Climate Change, 121(2): 255-270.

[7] A. Cunsolo Willox, S. Harper, V. Edge, K. Landman, K. Houle, J. Ford, et al. (2011).  ‘The land enriches the soul:’ on climatic and environmental change, affect, and emotional health and well-being in Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Canada. Emotion, Space and Society, 6: 1-11.

[8] N. Ellis, G. Albrecht (2017). Climate change threats to family farmers’ sense of place and mental wellbeing: a case study from the Western Australian Wheatbelt. Social Science and Medicine, 175: 161-168.

[9] Butler, 22.

[10] D. Burton-Christie. (2011). The gift of tears: Loss, mourning, and the work of ecological restoration. Worldviews 15: 29-46.

[11] The International Panel on Climate Change’s recent reports confirm that Arctic temperatures are increasing at twice the global average, with measurements indicated an approximate 2°C increase over the 20th Century average, and some areas (including where I live in Labrador) experiencing still greater warming trends. Sea ice is also rapidly declining throughout the Circumpolar North, with some of the greatest declines in extent within Arctic Canada regions, and predictions of ice free summer months as early as 2030. This warming leads to alterations in weather systems and precipitation patterns, storm frequencies and intensities, permafrost thawing, coastal erosion, and impacts to animal and plant dispersion and abundance. The National Snow & Ice Data Centre measurements indicated that the 2016-2017 winter saw record low winter sea ice levels, and higher than average temperatures. The Copernicus Climate Change Service, the first major international weather tracking organization to release their data each year, has just listed 2017 as the second-hottest year on record. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is anticipated to be releasing its data in the coming weeks, likely aligning with the Copernicus statement.

[12] CM Parkes, HG Prigerson. (2010). Bereavement: Studies Of Grief In Adult Life, 4th ed. Routledge: New York.

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Ashlee Cunsolo

Ashlee Cunsolo is the Director of the Labrador Institute of Memorial University, and a passionate researcher and environmental advocate. She has spent a decade working with Inuit around the ways in which climate change is impacting mental health, livelihoods, and cultural continuity, as well as ecological grief. She is the Co-Editor of Mourning Nature: Hope at the Heart of Ecological Grief & Loss, and the Director of the community-created documentary film, Attutauniujuk Nunami/Lament for the Land.

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