Twenty-first century 'eco-grief' is nothing new for the world's underprivileged

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Views of inundated areas in New Orleans following breaking of the levees surrounding the city as the result of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans, Louisiana. September 11, 2005. Image: NOAA Photo Library/Flickr

Grief is one of the few remaining experiences universal to human existence; an inevitability that no amount of medical, scientific, or technological advancement can forestall. As one commentator puts it: "Darwin observed that conscience is what most distinguishes humans from other animals. If so, grief isn't far behind." But while grief is arguably oh-so-human (and evidence of non-human-animal funerals would suggest otherwise), its instigator -- loss -- is common to all sentient beings. Indeed, grief is the emotional fallout of our animality; one defined by fragility, finitude and interconnectedness. To live is to lose.

But we bear loss not only via the void of human control, but through the imposition of it. The term "eco-grief" short-hands the feelings associated with one such loss -- in this case, the loss of environment resulting from human recklessness. As a social worker, I can attest to eco-grief -- and adjacent concepts, like eco-anxiety, eco-guilt and eco-fear -- as more than abstract discontent, but embodied distress. We cry real human tears -- the same ones shed upon the death of a loved one -- over the dwindling viability of planet Earth as home.    

In so much as eco-grief conceives our internal state to be a function of our social/political/economic context, it functions as more than descriptor but as call-to-action -- inciting us to gather around our shared pain, and to galvanize its energies towards systemic change. In this way, eco-grief is both the illness and, if effectively mobilized, the medicine.  

As a diagnosis-cum-social movement, eco-grief has the potential to disrupt multiple institutional and discursive barriers to an environmentally and socially just world order. Indeed, the deployment of mental health knowledges towards progressive social change represents a break from their conventional function of lending professional credence to the enforcement of the status quo.

Historically and to this day -- from the classification of "homosexuality" as a mental illness; to the diagnosis of Black resistance to slavery and segregation as "drapetomania" and "schizophrenia"; to the institutionalization of Indigenous peoples who protested the forced removal of their children; to the cultural obsession with psychologically categorizing Donald Trump -- Western psychiatric thought, practice and discourse has functioned to disavow, justify and individualize systemic oppression, while institutionalizing and delegitimizing those struggling against it.

This issue runs deeper than misapplication; definitionally, psychiatry is oriented towards the individual, and hence locates the "problem" in a person rather than a system. If this wasn't the case, we might have fewer diagnoses of depression, and more concerted effort to make the world less depressing. At its core, eco-grief "isn't a pathology. It's a reasonable and healthy response to an existential threat," as researcher Caroline Hickman argues. As such, this "disease" overturns the manufactured binary between the personal and political, situating individual grief within a grief-producing world, and insisting that treatment constitute more than breathing exercises, DBT, or medication.  

Grief as the emotional basis for mass mobilization poses a further disruption to the logics of business-as-usual. If, as eco-feminist thought claims, normalized planetary abuse is patriarchal in nature, then the loud and violent norms of traditional protest simply reproduce the issue's underlying logics. Activism underwritten by feminized grief, rather than masculinized anger, might offer us a new basis for engaging with land, non-human species, and each other. While often overlooked in efforts at political transformation, reconstituting our means for relating to one another is indispensable to the task of developing and sustaining a radically new world order.  

As a feminized emotion, grief is generally domesticated; shunted off to the private sphere. Employers offering employee "bereavement leave" do so specifically to preclude grief's leakage into the workplace. Grief is aimless, non-productive -- in fact, counterproductive -- and must therefore be contained. Complicated grief -- that which refuses neat bracketing -- is diagnosable as a mental health condition because the expression of grief is incompatible with the capitalist requirement of human productivity uninterrupted by human emotion.

How fitting, then, for a movement rejecting capitalist logics and practices of environmental destructiveness to be organized around the capitalist disturbance that is complicated grief -- large, stubborn, present in all the "wrong" places; a reminder of the persistent human neediness we insist must be central to political decision-making.  

And just as politicized eco-grief re-designates the place of soft emotion from the private to the public, it also redesignates its temporality. Grief is conventionally understood as the present recognition of a lost past. Its usage for the future-oriented project of social transformation therefore requires some time travel -- specifically, borrowing the perspective of tomorrow to haunt us today, to anguish over what will have been the grievable loss of our habitat and our futurity.

As professor Rob Nixon argues throughout his book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, rethinking the operation of time is critical towards environmental reckoning and action. He argues for complicating "conventional assumptions about violence as a highly visible act that is newsworthy because it is event focused, time bound, and body bound."

Indeed, the time delay between the cause and effect of planetary injury offers plausible deniability to its perpetrators, enabling a violence that is, ultimately, no less life-denying than that of drones and bombs. Eco-grief disrupts the normative accounting of time as linear, reminding us that, as William Faulkner said: "the past is never dead. It's not even past."

The mobilization of eco-grief is potentially potent because it collectivizes us on the basis of an intimately relatable and universally shared experience. The ubiquity of grief, however, is also what holds such a movement responsible for ubiquitous relevance.  

But that eco-grief has only proliferated in academic, activist and public discourse over the last decade is a temporal clue as to whose grief the concept was piloted in response to. Personally, my first real eco-grief experience was in 2018, following the widely publicized release of a UN report warning that significant, irreversible and spiralling ecological damage will be inevitable without significant intervention to limit global warming within the next decade. 

Being confronted with knowledge about the real-time destruction of our habitat is certainly unmooring but nonetheless an abstraction afforded by privilege. Indeed, for the millions who have been forcibly displaced from their ancestral homes to make way for dams, elite infrastructure, and staged "nature"; for those "stranded in place" -- i.e. whose land, water and air has been rendered unlivable, undrinkable and unbreathable due to industrial mining, oil and agriculture, projects for which they pay the price but do not reap the reward; for those whose land-based livelihoods and identities have been destroyed by human-perpetrated soil degradation, drought and flooding; for those whose bodies -- and children's bodies, and children's children's bodies -- carry the toxic remains of chemical disaster and war; for those whose families and possessions have been extinguished via climate change-induced extreme weather: for them, eco-grief isn't a dreaded dystopia but a long-lived nightmare.

Empathy is a survival skill; our perpetuity as an interdependent species necessitates this affective infectability. But the time lag between the onset of eco-grief for some versus others implies a selective immunity to this evolutionary function. Judith Butler explains this empathic failure by reference to "ungrievability."  As she writes: "If certain lives do not qualify as lives or are, from the start, not conceivable as lives within certain epistemological frames, then these lives are never lived nor lost in the full sense." 

A world order that produces suffering en masse, then, is made feasible by the denial of "life" to its victims; their death and misery is therefore rendered normal, invisible, unknowable, inevitable, necessary, self-inflicted, even desirable. Put otherwise -- their grief is made ungrievable.  

This grievability gap -- that between the presence of grief, and the apprehension of that grief -- is a function of distance: physical and imaginative. The stark ecological disparities between Global North and South are replicated at the local level, wherein the socio-political distance produced through race and class supplant that of geography to maldistribute negative environmental outcomes within societies.

Indeed, just as Black communities experienced the worst fall-out of 2005's Hurricane Katrina but received on average of $8,000 less in government aid than their white counterparts, India's persecuted Dalit minority felt most acutely the impacts of unusually severe 2007 monsoon floods but were the last to receive state-funded emergency relief. Outside of acute disaster, poor and dark communities disproportionately reside in environmentally-hazardous/neglected areas -- those with polluted air and water; with fewer trees, parks and greenery; and which are vulnerable to natural disaster. 

From the slow anguish of asthma to the fast fury of flood, from Canada to Congo, eco-grief is a centuries-long condition of existence for those without the privilege of proximity to "grievability."   

In critiquing the title of Black author Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, the late, great Toni Morrison famously registered her refusal to submit her humanity up for white assessment. As she said: "invisible to whom? Not to me." With respect to ungrievability, we should similarly ask: ungrievable to whom? Indeed, to mark entire communities as ungrievable is to participate in the very dehumanization being critiqued; to erase the humanity of those who do, in fact, grieve for the ungrievable. 

So, without conceding that some have the inherent moral legitimacy to assign grievability, we can acknowledge that some have the manufactured social/economic/political power to materially enforce their definition of grievability. In this context, it should be concerning that the grief of the many hasn't just been acceptable but desirable for those with such enforcement power.

Indeed, the foundational event of Canada was one of eco-grief: the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their land and resources through the violent imposition of European bodies, laws, economies, norms, livestock and disease. Settlers eco-grieve the anticipated loss of "Canada"; Indigenous peoples are eco-aggrieved by Canada. That this very country also has the largest per capita carbon footprint of any G20 economy speaks to the reality that life here -- the one we mourn for in advance -- has been financed by the simultaneous abuse of people and planet. Industries of fast fashion, mining and agriculture, for example, are notorious for underpaying, overworking and endangering those who labour under them and for contributing disproportionately to climate change and other forms of planetary degradation. 

The systems of resource transformation that supply our existence do so by withholding the means of existence from the many more, and denying the futurity of existence to even more yet. Perversely, those injured alongside our planet in the service of economies benefiting others, are those who have and will continue to disproportionately absorb the resulting planetary blowback: while the poorest half of the global population is responsible for just 10 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, developing countries will bear approximately 75 per cent of the costs of the climate crisis. For the majority of the world's people, then, 21st-century eco-grief isn't the sobering hangover at the end of a great party -- it's the continuation of an all-round bad trip.

While power produces the ungrievable, it also produces the "excessively grievable": those whose humanness is made to symbolize humanity, and whose grief casts a shadow on the entire world. The 3,000 killed on 9/11, for example, have since justified a war on terror killing many, many times more. Unlike war, however, action against climate change would seem to have us all on the same side. Indeed, virtually all of us have something to lose from this progressive planetary illness. But while eco-grief is a universal experience, it is not of universal orientation: while some of us grieve the anticipated end of the status quo, the many more grieve the status quo. 

This directional misalignment in eco-grief between those with differential grievability has already informed global environmentalist responses. From "green-grabbing" initiatives that produce sustainable energy for the Global North through the forcible displacement of Global South poor, to racist environmentalism that blames planetary strain on "overpopulation" and non-white/Western animal consumption practices -- mainstream environmentalism has thus far ensured that, materially and discursively, status quo dynamics should not be interrupted by a recognition that the status quo is unsustainable.  

Arguably, then, the mobilization of human grief isn't up to the task of mobilizing for humanity. Indeed, our conventional option for resolving of grief is mere acceptance, and we are left with a void of actionability when acceptance isn't an option. So we may have to look elsewhere. In Empire of Love, Elizabeth Povinelli describes the conceptual association between grief and jealousy in the linguistic context of a particular Indigenous community in Australia: while both grief and jealousy refer to feelings accompanying loss, the former references loss from this world; the latter, loss within it. 

Could adopting this association furnish our environmentalism -- allowing us to better name environmental loss as constitutive of both eco-jealousy and eco-grief?  Would it make easier the task of naming victims -- those whose eco-loss is lost to them, but which still remains in this world? Would it facilitate recognition that resource theft and planetary degradation are underpinned by the common capitalist logics of endless accumulation and disposability? Would it help us accept that eco-jealousy ends in eco-grief, and that environmentalism can't create the same losers that environmental pillaging has? 

Maybe this definitional expansion is what we need -- or, maybe, deferring this matter to theory will be unhelpful. Because, ultimately, what we need is for our eco-grief to be as expansive as our eco-footprint. In a world of globalized economic and political impact, but localized emotional and social responsibility, there is currently a stark disequilibrium between the two. Addressing this chasm is no small order but a worthwhile one, as I'm convinced that our feelings are integral to the fight for our planet.  After all, a movement for human survival needs more -- not less -- humanity.

Khadijah Kanji holds a masters in social work. She works in therapy, as well as in research, programming, and public education on issues of Islamophobia, racism, transphobia/homophobia and other areas of social justice.

Image: NOAA Photo Library/Flickr

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