Loss, Mourning, and Climate Change

This paper was presented at UMass Amherst on April 2, 2016, as part of the English Graduate Organization’s “Forms of Feeling” Conference.

Aerial views of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast taken during a search and rescue mission by 1-150 Assault Helicopter Battalion, New Jersey Army National Guard, Oct. 30, 2012.

Photo by Mark C. Olsen
Aerial views of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast taken during a search and rescue mission by 1-150 Assault Helicopter Battalion, New Jersey Army National Guard, Oct. 30, 2012.

Weather is as much a metaphor for affect as it is the stimulus of affective response. There are “sunny dispositions” and “mental fogs” just as one can suffer from “seasonal depression” and “stormy moods.” We become frustrated when flights get canceled due to storms; concerned for our livelihoods during droughts; fearful of the impact of natural disaster on our cities.

The way humans relate to and react to weather has been documented in literature, scientific record, and everyday conversation.

For example, in April 1815, a volcano called Tambora located on Sumbawa Island in the East Indies violently erupted. Three years later, the impact of the volcano could be seen and felt all over the world. The volcanic ash had been blasted so high into the stratosphere that it created an aerosol layer around the Earth, deflecting solar rays back into space instead of radiating it downward. In New England, 1816 was nicknamed “Year Without a Summer.” Germans called 1817 the “Year of the Beggar.” Agriculture suffered and outright failed while villagers in Vermont survived on boiled nettles and peasants in rural China sucked on white clay. The atmosphere of these dismal times became inscribed in the works Mary Shelley in Frankenstein (1818) or Charles Dickens’ grim depictions of poverty in Victorian London. One night in 1816, after having exchanged ghost stories with both Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron writes, observing the weather:

The sky is changed—and such a change! Oh night,
And storm, and darkness, ye are wondrous strong […]
And now again ’tis black,—and now, the glee
Of the loud hills shakes with its mountain-mirth,
As if they did rejoice o’er a young earthquake’s birth.

The singular event of Tambora’s eruption has been indefinitely inscribed in the human record through these observations and interpretations.

Climate change, one of the most globally important political, socioeconomic, and cultural issues in present day, revolves around shifts in weather, and by extension, shifts in emotions.

Like Byron, Emily Dickinson was also a keen observer of the weather and takes things one step further, connecting seasonal change explicitly to a form of loss. She writes:

As imperceptibly as grief
The summer lapsed away,—
Too imperceptible, at last,
To seem like perfidy.

Dickinson alludes to the notion that the discourse of weather change — and thus climate change — is predominantly one of loss and transformation — of coastlines, of ice shelves, of species, of traditions, of human life, of permanence.

In order to deal with loss, one also inevitably encounters the work of grief and mourning. I use “grief” and “mourning” to refer to the expression or sorrow that usually follows death. Perhaps, as Ashlee Cunsolo Willox (2012) writes, “Re-casting climate change as the work of mourning means that we can share our losses, and encounter them as opportunities for productive and important work to be given primacy and taken seriously.“

After a close reading of climate change discourse in news, literature, political speech, and other media forms, I propose a brief discussion based on three questions:

  1. First, how might a shared understanding of grief, at first a private emotion, eventually create spaces for public expression of vulnerability, cultural change, and even political action in the context of climate change?
  2. Second, what is the difference between a retrospective grief of things long gone, and an anticipatory grief of losses yet to come?
  3. Finally, what might mourning loss due to climate change reveal about the deeper relationship between human and non-human life in the environment?

As an aside, I do not discount that scientific research plays an important role in giving form to the climate change discussion. However, for the purposes of this talk, I have chosen to focus on more interpretive elements of climate change discourse: human narratives, and particular experiences that highlight the complex forms of meaning constructed and co-constructed by humans about non-human life.

To the first point, Willox suggests, “Reconciling the private responses of environmentally-based loss with the relative absence of this grief in public…is of the utmost importance.” She asserts, “We need…mechanisms that can extend grievability to non-human bodies and recognize them as mournable objects.” This idea is rooted in Judith Butler’s concept of “derealized bodies” — at once alive but discounted, always already lost or rather never were. In other words, Willox proposes a revaluing of non-human bodies — animal, vegetal, mineral — in climate change discourse to generate new forms of grieving, publicly – through art, testimonial, protest, news, and other forms.

In the 1960s, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring eulogized, among other things, the loss of bird song in an environmentally-polluted, post-industrial America. Published before the creation of much environmental regulation in the U.S., Carson’s book generated mass public awareness of the use of pesticides and its adverse effects on the environment. At first dismissed by chemical companies and institutions, the book ultimately contributed to a social movement in support of environmental remediation and against pesticides. This laid the groundwork for more formalized environmental policy – in the form of the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts of the 1970s. The treatment of bird song as a “mournable object” created a space for public discourse about a changing ecology directly correspondent to human activity and intervention.

Grieving also takes place with variance in temporality. It is both possible to retrospectively mourn things already gone and to mourn a loss that has not yet occurred. For instance, the ongoing loss of glacial masses gives rise – literally – to global sea levels. In this case, news outlets actively report on the loss of one thing due to climate change and concomitantly pre-empt the loss of another.

This is consistent with Derrida’s position that even before death, we understand the possibility of mourning, and thus the labor of mourning is one that, once it begins, is never quite completed. It then becomes, as Willox writes, “an opportunity to continually engage with death, with loss, and with those who have come before while we are still alive.”

Possibly, what this reveals about the relationship between human and non-human life is the common thread that connects the two: vulnerability and impermanence. The ongoing labor of mourning is self-reflexive and cognizant of this shared impermanence. The literature of political ecology offers a related argument that natural environments are not merely the stage upon which human actors battle epistemological or material domination; rather, environments and human societies are co-constructed. Willox writes, “Thinking of climate change as the work of mourning provides the opportunity to learn from the deaths, or the potential deaths, of bodies beyond our own, and beyond our species to unite in individual and global action and response.”

And it is this responsibility to respond – through ethical, political choices and actions – that Derrida deems to be a necessity of life. “Speaking is impossible,” he writes after a friend’s death, “but so too would be silence or absence or a refusal to share one’s sadness.” By performing acts of mourning, one continues to construct meaning around the deceased.

iSeeChange is a journalistic project partnered with NASA-JPL that encourages participants to contribute observations of changing weather and climate. The platform is modeled after the Farmers Almanac, a traditional mode of documenting weather patterns to observe the changing seasons. Participants like this one post questions that anticipate change or transformation and in doing so memorialize extant forms of life in advance. In effect, this mode of storytelling is a form of writing future eulogies for the natural environment and the implications those changes have on human life, traditions, economies, and more. It returns some agency to the individual, and specific publics, who share anxieties about climate change impacts and offers a space to respond, to take action, and to enter into a dialogue – not unlike artists’ observations of weather patterns after Tambora in the 19th century.

This agency becomes important in the context of navigating political discourse about climate change. During this year’s election season in particular, presidential candidates’ views on the subject are invariably polarized. The Guardian reports that 2015 was the “warmest year on record, with parts of the country in their worst drought in 1,200 years and millions of people at risk of being swamped by ballooning sea level increases.” Still, the current candidates’ views span a multitude of belief and value systems. For some, climate change is connected to terrorism or infrastructure. For others, it is unrelated to human activity and far from a human responsibility.

“My philosophy is that we are here to take care of the environment but not to worship the environment.” — Kasich, NHPR (34:00), 11/12/15

“[Climate change] could not have come from the burning of fossil fuels.” – Cruz, Senate Commerce Committee, 12/8/15; LexisNexis, 12/8/15]

“The biggest risk to the world, to me – I know President Obama thought it was climate change – to me the biggest risk is nuclear weapons. That’s – that is climate change.” –Trump, Washington Post, 3/21/16

“Climate change is already taking a toll on the nation’s infrastructure, leaving taxpayers to pick up the tab.” –Clinton, Hillary Clinton Campaign Website, 11/30/15

“[Climate change] is directly related to the growth of terrorism. And if we do not get our act together and listen to what the scientists say you’re gonna see countries all over the world.” –Sanders, CBS News, 11/14/15

It is in this context that mourning environmental losses can usher in new modes of participation in this discourse – in not quite apolitical but less politicized means. Acknowledging loss is a human reaction and carves out a space to express anxiety, vulnerability, devastation, hopefulness, or cherishing.

In closing, I refer to an excerpt from Patti Smith’s M Train, in which she shares the experience of visiting her house in the Rockaways after Hurricane Sandy devastated the area.

“I sat on the makeshift step of what would be my refurbished porch and envisioned a yard with wildflowers. Anxious for some permanency, I guess I needed to be reminded how temporal permanency is.”

Extreme changes in weather and climate can augur great loss, because loss itself is socially and culturally constructed, and that loss can include both human and non-human life. The act of mourning these losses publicly is at once a responsibility that we have to engage with the bereaved and an effort to reconstruct meaning around it afterward. At the core, mourning is a recognition of impermanence and mortality – of the forms of life around us and of our own.


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Lily Bui

About Lily Bui

Lily Bui's masters research focused on using sensors to support environmental monitoring, and communicating sensor-based data to different stakeholders. She is currently a PhD student at MIT's School of Architecture & Planning in the Department of Urban Studies & Planning. She holds dual bachelor's degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine. Before joining MIT CMS, she worked at Public Radio Exchange (PRX), where she helped generate and distribute science public radio; and SciStarter, where she helped find and tell stories about citizen science. In other past lives, she has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter; and performed across the U.S. as a touring musician. In her spare time, she can be spotted on a surfboard or skateboard (and/or strumming a ukulele) somewhere warm. Thesis: Sense and the City: Representations of Air Quality Data in the “Smart City”