Emotional Preparedness for a Dying Planet

AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano

People can argue about climate change all they want, but the science is in: the planet is warming, and the ice caps are melting. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, especially if you’re young and imagined a nice long life like your parents had, or if you just brought a child into this increasingly heated world.

Loss involves mourning. At LitHub, poet Sue Sinclair charts her own movement from denial to grief, and she examines what it means to mourn for a planet instead of one life. As a poet, she looks to poetry for insight — how it can, in her words, “help me to shift out of denial, and how it may support me as I move deeper into the work of mourning.”

Denial, in any case, might show that I’m on the threshold of mourning, just overwhelmed by it . . . which could mean that I’ve crossed into it without knowing. For although there are myriad theories about how mourning is experienced, and certainly people mourn differently, denial is often an early stage. So as a denier who glimpses grief, I may be on my way to a richer, more painful engagement with the dying world—which I both want and don’t want. I want it for the reasons I’ve given already—I want to feel integrated as a person and wholly engaged by my environment. But I also want it for moral reasons. Philosopher Simone Weil has written that “to know that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as I do—that is enough, the rest follows of itself.” Weil’s point is that actually, vividly grasping the reality of another being leads straight into a moral relationship of care. That’s one reason I want to step further out of denial. Then there’s Lesley Head’s argument that truly grieving climate change, and the selves that will be stripped from us in the process, can free up emotional energy to be invested in more creative ways. “Bearing our grief will not necessarily stave off catastrophe, but it will give us a better chance of effective action,” she writes. What exactly constitutes effective action will vary depending on the situation: it could involve a variety of actions aimed at stopping or even reversing climate change; it could also be a matter of keeping vigil and offering to our human as well as our animal, vegetable, and mineral companions what palliative care is possible now that global warming is underway.

We need to think about what vigil and palliative care might look like, for these are becoming increasingly necessary forms of action. Head notices that “we are systematically excluding the more extreme parts of future projections from our consideration, just because they are so difficult.” She suggests that some of our preparatory efforts “must go into emotional preparedness for things that may be extremely unpleasant.”

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