Queeries: How can I stay hopeful as the world burns?
Eco-anxiety is a form of grief, writes our Fagony Aunt, and grief is something we need to let ebb and flow. Grow a community garden, curl into a perpetual foetal position, join international activist efforts or go off-grid – whatever you do, go easier on yourself.
27 Aug 2021
Dearest Fagony Aunt,
The severity of it comes in waves, but it’s always there; I feel scared! Every day I wake up, there seems to be more heartbreaking news about the state of the Earth, and as I’m getting closer and closer to the natural world through my own interests, the reality of climate change consequences are on my mind more than ever. The feeling of helplessness has made a permanent home in my body. I’ve been struggling with motivation and optimism for a while now in my personal life and, when thinking about the future and the climate disasters to come, I feel even less able to take my desires or needs seriously. I’m feeling it all really deeply as wildfire smoke rolls into my hometown. Where do I start when approaching this? How can I avoid succumbing to pessimism and stagnancy? How do I do my part to help protect the earth and those most affected by capitalism’s havoc?
I love birds too. I love the way they squawk and sing and get so excited at 5am for no reason and build super intricate, cosy nests out of things the rest of us barely notice and tilt their heads to the side like they’re about to start a fight – but really they’re using one eye to look at the ground to find worms to eat and the other eye to watch for predators at the same time because they’re birds and they can do that!! I’ve often felt lucky to inhabit this earth at the same time as birds and in my dreams I can fly – clumsily, and always with a bead of anxiety in my chest, but still.
You and I are of course not alone in our adoration. From the freedom-yearning bird of Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’, to Emily Dickinson’s ‘hope’ anthropomorphised as “the thing with feathers”, we look to birds to help make sense of the stuff of life. The stork delivers a baby, the lovebirds flirt, the crows grieve. For the depressed, traumatised or simply fed up, birds may embody the fantasy of leaving, to be light when everything is heavy, to gtfo. They transcend the limits of borders, British weather and unhealthily small queer dating pools. They remind us to look up – that there’s always something bigger, and smaller, and most importantly that you’re never too fancy to get shat on.
“The natural world is generous and the closer we are to it, the tighter it will hold us through whatever is to come”
What I’m saying, sweet birdlover97, is keep loving birds. Start there. Extend that love to as many creatures, plants and ecosystems as you can, in whatever way makes sense and is available to you (yes, trying and failing to grow one single crispy houseplant counts!) It may seem counterintuitive to lean even further into the greens of the planet at the same time you’re mourning them, but isn’t it instinctually the only answer? It’s sus that so many of us have come to see nature as something outside of us, something that we can choose and control, as if we aren’t all guests here? As if we didn’t carve roads into this luscious rock. When you deep it, it’s no surprise then that ‘nature’ is the greatest healer there is, with 25% of the medicines stocked in our pharmacies derived directly from rainforest plants. The natural world is generous and the closer we are to it, the tighter it will hold us through whatever is to come.
“As QTIBPOC with ancestral and actual histories of violence, displacement and profound connection with nature, it makes so much sense that we feel this in our bones”
I must thank you for taking time with this question and the really scary feelings surrounding it. It is one that, having been a naturally worrisome child who went on to study climate science, I have been sitting with for a long time. I wonder if, like me, you can extract some tiny hope from the fact that this absolute blanket of anxiety and grief you’re carrying is finally a mainstream conversation with an increasingly active community around it. That, while sometimes you may feel otherwise, you’re not alone. It’s a tiresome and badly-timed solace for sure, but I don’t think we can be choosy.
The feelings of helplessness you’re describing are now widely referred to as ecological grief and eco-anxiety and are explained as the apathy/sadness/resentment felt about experienced or anticipated ecological losses, due to acute or chronic man-made environmental change. As QTIBPOC with ancestral and actual histories of violence, displacement and profound connection with nature, it makes so much sense that we feel this in our bones. And that’s irregardless of the decades of (ignored) climate change warnings, and the significant research into the effects of this on our mental health (bad).
While it can feel good and important to talk about grief and strategise around averting environmental chaos with other people, there can be some moralism around what the appropriate response to climate disaster is. (If there’s one thing that six million years of hominin evolution can tell us for sure, it’s that everyone has always got something to say.) Some schools of thought will shame people for using plastic straws and some are busy collecting plastic bottles to make life rafts for when the time comes. Some of us feel that – though this is a disaster created by the 1% – we are now obliged to offer ourselves to community activism to survive, and some of us just want to be left perfectly alone. Some folks are convinced recycling is a scam and we should all just live our best lives – and it’s awkward, but given the ways those with actual power fail us, I don’t blame them!!
In the search for your place in all this, and as passions and judgements increase with the same vim as the ratio of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, know that you’re allowed to do what feels right for you. For queers of colour, ecological disaster is not the first or only existential challenge we’re juggling and it is likely our people are baring the brunt of this greed before others. We deserve our needs and desires to be taken seriously – who else is gonna do that for us?!
“Go easier on yourself. Unless you are Jeffrey Bezos himself masquerading as a shy twink on gal-dem.com, this is not your fault and the first responsibility you have is to your own wellbeing”
If you do decide to grow a community garden, curl into a perpetual foetal position, join international activist efforts or go off-grid, do it because you want to and not because someone on Twitter with completely different life circumstances told you you should. Go easier on yourself. Unless you are Jeffrey Bezos himself masquerading as a shy twink on gal-dem.com, this is not your fault and the first responsibility you have is to your own wellbeing.
Recently, I asked Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of the must-read book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, how she stays hopeful and here’s what she said:
“The grief is heartbreaking. But what I try to do is to feel that deeply. We can’t look away from it, because to me, grief is that measure of how much we love the world. Grief can paralyse us, it can bring us to despair and hopelessness, but when we recognise that the pain we’re feeling is ecological compassion, it’s love, it’s a love for the world that is strong and fierce and lets us say, ‘not on my watch’. I always ask myself and others, ‘what do you love too much to lose?’ Commit to that, and know that it’s our responsibility to pick that up and carry it through the narrows of climate change. That’s what the world will look like on the other side.”
“Grief isn’t meant to be held inside the body. Grief needs to return to the Earth”
In so many cultures in the world such as the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso, grief is honoured and attended to in regular community rituals. The Dagara people are still in relationship to the land and have an awareness of the Earth as a being. In communal ritual, there is a recognition that grief isn’t meant to be held inside the body. Grief needs to return to the Earth. As activist and spiritual teacher Sobunfu Somé explains: “The giving of grief to the Earth takes it from a dead-end, stuck-inside grief you don’t know what to do with, and turns it into a medicine. The expression of grief becomes regenerative. It really can be composted and transformed”.
For some of us, when we close our eyes, we hear the Earth creak and strain under the weight of all the injustice it never asked to be home to. That is not our fault, and wouldn’t even feel like as much of a problem if our society was grief literate in any way; if we had places and people around to help us hold the glory of this knowledge. Because being close enough to the elements to feel their pain is glorious as much as it hurts, and you are so special for feeling it all. The home you have made in your body for these feelings is not stagnant. They will not drown you, though they are heavy. The home in your body is a portal, a watery conduit for ancient strength and wisdom to find you and guide you. And it will; it already has.
“Learn from and donate to indigenous communities who have been doing the work and for whom stewardship of the land was never an opt-in situation. Respect, protect and share the remaining knowledge. And take time to celebrate environmental victories because there are actually many!”
Get lost in a forest, feel small and centered and use mindful movement to give that precious head a break and bring yourself back into your body. Demand cuddles, walk towards rivers and eat take-away in bed. Listen to nerdy podcasts and playlists about birds, slice fruit, cry and climb trees. Seek moments of joy with loved ones, draw your favourite plant, take baths and smell something you’ve never smelt before. Get climate-informed therapy because if the world is ending the least you can do is process tf out of it! Take regular breaks from the news and always remember that, no matter how many likes you get on Instagram, there are literally thousands of dog accounts more popular than you are. Learn from and donate to indigenous communities who have been doing the work and for whom stewardship of the land was never an opt-in situation. Respect, protect and share the remaining knowledge. And take time to celebrate environmental victories because there are actually many!
Hold your dear ones close. With a future uncertain of anything except mass suffering, the only thing we do know is that we will need each other to survive. Let the grief ebb and flow, and allow yourself to just be in it.
Birds, aka avian dinosaurs, are some of the most resilient creatures on earth and will likely survive whatever is to come, as they have for the last 150 million years, even if we don’t. They’re often small, breed quickly, don’t need to eat loads and can fly to environments better suited to their needs. They’re also very clever, with some such as coal tits, jays and corvids being known to bury food in the ground in winter months and remembering exactly where every nut and seed has been resting, protected by the Earth, returning when it’s time to feast.
SZA’s 2017 album track, ‘Pretty Little Birds’ rings in my ears. May the words of this unofficial climate justice anthem remind you, when you feel scared and under-resourced, to trust yourself.
“You are but a phoenix among feathers //
You’re broken by the waves among the sea //
They’ll let you die, they’ll let you wash away //
But you swim as well as you fly.”