Powerful emotions surface in the face of massive ecological destruction: panic, terror, guilt, emotional overload, and despair. It’s tempting to run from them.
To begin to accept the realities we face and to channel our feelings toward constructive engagement with possible solutions, we must first allow ourselves to mourn. As Bill McKibben noted so long ago, we must mourn the “end of nature”—including the end of many species, ecosystems, seasons, agricultural ways, and archipelagos.
Eco-Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy has suggested that the more we experience eco-fallout from human-induced climate change and other environmental problems, the more we will have to learn to deal with eco-despair. As an educator who teaches courses with titles such as “Religion, Nature, and Globalization,” I have had to learn how to deal with the ecological despair that my students face when they begin to realize just how impossible, wicked, and huge the problems associated with ecological degradation are.
We all need something to turn to in the face of recognizing our own complicity with a system that is not good for human or nonhuman life. Pursuing quick, individual solutions—recycling more, driving less, eating vegetarian, supporting clean energy—can make us feel better about ourselves but do little to stem the tide. I encourage my students to instead confront the loss head on. I’m not saying that individual actions don’t make a difference. They absolutely do. But they will continue to be like the proverbial bucket on the Titanic until large, systemic changes occur. The limited power of lifestyle changes becomes particularly apparent when playing with ecological footprint calculators such as the one located at myfootprint.org: doing so reveals that just by virtue of living in an industrialized nation like the United States, we are incapable of living in ways that sustain the planetary community.
After reassuring my students that individual actions do add up, even though they are not enough, I encourage them to begin a mourning process. Such a process is inherent to the practice of hope: hope entails recognition of a situation that is “not as it should be” and desiring for it to be different, even if there is no indication that it will be different. It is an existential positioning in the face of trials and uncertainty and thus must begin with recognition that all is not well.
Mourning, Hospice, and Memorialization
The process of dealing with despair has at least three parts: mourning what is lost, a turn toward environmental hospice, and environmental memorialization.
The importance of mourning, both repentant and otherwise, must not be underestimated. There are some species and ecosystems that are already lost, and rather than spin our wheels trying to prevent the changes that will occur, we ought to develop some ethics and attitudes that foster environmental hospice.
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