We have landed in ill time; the skies look grimlyWilliam Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale
My intention was to try to write something positive this month. I failed.
I can’t get these haunting images of dark ferruginous skies out of my head. Ferruginous: that’s a new word I learned this week, as in: rust-colored, reddish brown.
On New Year’s Day 2020, we woke to apocalyptic images of Australia’s blood red skies. Nine months later, it’s North America’s turn. As Rebecca Solnit wrote recently from San Francisco, “This morning was perhaps the most unnatural-feeling and unnerving of my life, with darkness rather than daytime rolling in.”
There is nothing “wild” about these fires (in the same vein, there’s nothing “natural” about fracked gas). The words we choose to describe climate chaos do make a difference. Let’s be clear: these unprecedented, uncontrollable, super-hot megafires should be called what they really are: climate fires. They are fueled by the burning of fossil fuels that should have stayed in the ground.
But even if we managed to find a way, tomorrow, to fully wean ourselves off fossil fuels and transition to 100% renewable energy, global temperatures would not decline “for a very long time” due to accumulated carbon in the atmosphere, writes Jeff Goodell in this week’s Rolling Stone. “There is no going back to the gentle California climate of the past” laments Goodell, who grew up in the Golden State.
While US headlines are currently focused on the loss of human life and property in its three western states, an enormous fire has been burning out-of-control since mid-July in Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland. Yes, you read that correctly: a wetland is on fire. So is the Amazon. So is the Arctic. So is the Siberian tundra.
The skies look grimly. Ferruginous.
Last month, I wrote about my struggles with solastalgia, an existential grief associated with the lived experience of unwanted transformation or degradation to one’s home territory or environment. But my anxiety about local climate breakdown is compounded by an over-arching anxiety about global climate breakdown. More than anything else, I am devastated by the profound negative impact of the human world on the non-human world. This is my version of climate grief.
“Irreversible damage has already been done. We have lost something – we can’t pretend otherwise,” says Timothy Morton in the BBC’s excellent three-part podcast, “The End of the World Has Already Happened.”
For example, 46 million acres of forest were burned during Australia’s Black Summer bushfires. But we didn’t just lose 46 million acres of trees – we also lost hundreds of thousands of wildflowers, lichens, grasses, berries, mushrooms, etc. that sustain both the human and non-human world. When climate fires incinerated these forests during Australia’s 2019-2020 fire season, an estimated three billion animals (mostly reptiles, but also birds, mammals, and frogs) were killed or displaced, according to a recent study funded by WWF Australia. Three billion! Due to lack of baseline data, this estimate does not include turtles, fish, or insects, so the total number of non-human lives lost is clearly much higher. The Black Summer bushfires are considered the worst single event for wildlife in Australia and among the worst in the world; they will likely push (or have already pushed) many vulnerable plant and animal species into extinction.
This is an unspeakable tragedy. But perhaps what is more tragic is the fact that the extraordinary pace and scale of the loss of our non-human relatives – with whom we share this planet and on whom we depend for our own survival – has not yet registered in our collective imagination.
Closer to home, biologists at New Mexico State University have documented over the past month a mass-mortality event of millions of migrating birds across southwestern US. Preliminary findings suggest that this mass die-off is linked to smoke from the western climate fires. It has been described as “thousands of birds falling out of the sky” and “a national tragedy.” I have no words. Just profound, inconsolable sorrow.
I cannot imagine the despair and grief these biologists must be feeling after picking up thousands of bird carcasses across New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, and Nebraska. In my own experience, the death of three tiny barn swallow fledglings last month left me devastated for days. I buried them under a cherry tree.
“Grief and loss, I fear, are going to be the defining emotions of the climate crisis,” wrote Goodell.
To survive this age of climate grief, we must urgently find ways to transform this grief into collective activism. I’ve been reading about how to change our mindsets about grief, turning it into something positive (which is what I originally sat down to write about for this post):
1. We need to recognize that climate grief could become our greatest ally. Read how in this excellent piece by Dr. Jennifer Atkinson, an ecological grief expert, in Resilience.org.
2. As Timothy Morton observed in the BBC podcast mentioned above: “The end of the world has already happened. That means there’s something that comes next. There’s something very liberating about this; we’ve got nothing to lose.” And he adds: “There’s no big reveal here; we don’t need a religious conversion. We’ve got what we need inside us as a starting point for caring for this new world we find ourselves in.”
3. Another quote from Timothy Morton that resonates profoundly with me: “We need a new way of speaking about the inter-connectedness of all forms of life. Not just inter-connectedness, but inter-dependence. All beings are inter-dependent.”
4. I can’t wait to get my hands on All We Can Save, a new anthology co-edited by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Dr. Katharine Wilkinson to be published today. It contains essays, poetry and original artwork by 40 women at the forefront of the climate movement who are leading humanity forward. From the book’s website: “To change everything, we need everyone… We must summon truth, courage, and solutions, to turn away from the brink and toward life-giving possibility.” The editors hope the book will open space for people to share their feelings about the climate crisis and the ecological grief it can cause.
5. Finally, I’m taking the liberty to cite, in its entirety, the last paragraph of Rebecca Solnit’s most recent and hopeful article in The Guardian:
Restorative justice activist Mariame Kaba put it thus: “I always tell people, for me, hope doesn’t preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger or any other emotion that makes total sense. Hope isn’t an emotion, you know? Hope is not optimism.” And she has famously said hope is a discipline. It’s a commitment to the future that must manifest as action. That discipline matters most when it is hardest. And when the stakes are highest. This is such a moment, with much to lose, and much to win.
(All ferruginous photos by Joan Sullivan.)
This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.
Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. Her photographs have been exhibited in group and solo shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. She is currently experimenting with abstract photography as a new language to express her anxiety about climate breakdown. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. You can find Joan on Twitter, Visura and Ello.