Through Grief to Change

On the Role of Grieving in the Climate Crisis

By Silvia Vittonatto

As this record-breaking hot summer has made more apparent than ever, the tangible and intangible losses caused by the climate crisis are (and will continue to be) innumerable. Naturally, the emotional response to loss is grief. However, the role of grief and other mournful emotions in the context of the climate crisis is a somewhat controversial topic. The core question is whether grief is a potentially helpful feeling or a counterproductive one. This question might appear problematically utilitarian—especially when applied to cultural production—but it encourages reflection on what motivates action (and what kind of action) in times of crisis.

ocean litter at the beach

Ecological grief is an umbrella term that encompasses various forms of grief related to the consequences of climate change: the loss of habitats, ecologies, and biodiversity; the extinction of species; the loss of cultural practices, rites, habits, and local identities; the instability caused by forced displacement and so on. A comprehensive list of losses connected to climate change is listed in this article by W. Neil Adger and others for example. Ecological grief is experienced internally and collectively, is expressed in literature and art, and is currently an increasingly important subject of discussion in the Environmental Humanities and related fields. 

Much of the discussion around ecological grief centres on the most paralysing and pessimistic attributes of this emotion. However, framing ecological grief as an apathetic response that results in immobilism and defeatism means failing to appreciate its potential for rethinking reality in light of loss. This type of binary thinking opposes grief and hope, mourning and resisting, despair and consolation, and thus fails to acknowledge that grief is in many ways future oriented, profoundly connected to care, and harbours the radical aspiration that things may be very different from what they are (on grief as a reality-shaping force, see this article by R. Clifton Spargo). Such attributes of grief, and the ambivalence that characterises this emotion, are brilliantly captured by several literary texts that engage with the climate crisis. For instance, novels like Jenny Offill’s Weather and Jesse Greengrass’ The High House grapple with ecological grief from different temporal standpoints. In Weather, anticipatory grief disrupts the peace of a relatively stable present, while The High House focuses on post-catastrophe mourning.

burning forest

What, then, should we do with our grief? First, making space for expressions of grief publicly, privately, and within the cultural sphere paves the way to accepting and coming to terms with the reality of the climate emergency without denying or underplaying its consequences and implications. Secondly, according to ecopsychologists and social scientists, grief can be harnessed to demand change and channelled into collective action, activism, and resilience (see, among others, the volume by Lesley Head). Moreover, engaging with grief serves different purposes, including: overcoming denial and repression, promoting a sense of responsibility and ecological interconnectedness (see the volume by Joshua Trey Barnett), shaping our value system, fostering a preparatory dimension and potentially mobilising action, and contributing to psychological and emotional resilience. For instance, Ashley Cunsolo suggests that ‘mourning has the capacity to be a more psychologically healthy emotion to incite political action’ and ‘enhance individual and collective resilience to loss’.

Ecological grief may feel overwhelming, but it is denial that is holding us back. Far from being the antithesis of hope, the encounter with grief might be the very first step toward meaningful change.

Silvia Vittonatto is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at University College London (UK). Her project considers how ecological grief is articulated in contemporary literature through elegiac modes. Her PhD research is generously supported by the Wolfson Foundation.

Languages of the Anthropocene

She presented part of her research on ecological grief in contemporary literature at the International Multidisciplinary Symposium “Languages of the Anthropocene”, which was organized by CAPAS and took place at The British School at Rome on 20-21 June 2023. Her conference paper, Resistant Grief and Futurity in the Contemporary Climate Change Memoir, focuses on autobiographical expressions of ecological grief in hyper-contemporary texts, such as Daniel Sherrell’s Warmth (2021). During the two-day conference, the stimulating contributions and discussions offered refreshing new ways of examining our responses to the climate crisis and thinking about the nuances of climate discourse in literature, language, art, music, politics, gaming, and the media at large.  

Silvia Vittonatto