content note: climate existential dread, mention of suicidality
An earlier version of this post was available last week to supporters of my Patreon.
The other day, I made a really delicious salad for dinner, and as I sat there eating it, and enjoying it, and thinking about all of its components, I was, again, overcome with dread about the future of food security as climate change worsens.
This is a post about how fears about climate change are showing up in my life these days, and about how I hope to use narrative practices to respond to these fears in my own life and in the lives of community members who consult me. Many people in my communities, myself included, are experiencing a pervasive sense of hopelessness and powerlessness.
Narrative therapy suggests that we are never passive recipients of hardship or trauma. That people are always responding to the problems in their lives. I believe this is true, even when the response is not outwardly (or sometimes inwardly) visible. I want to find ways to speak about climate grief, climate fear, climate anger, in ways that honour our values, our skills, and our legacies of response. This post is one effort in this direction. I hope that there will be more. I hope that you will join me on the journey.
I think about climate change, and about how it will impact food security and the necessities of life, so often.
I think about the wealth gap that already exists and is worsening globally, and I think about how so many of my communities are already living with financial precarity. I think about what the salad I made should cost if we paid what we need to for carbon, and I think about how drastically my diet would need to change. I think about self-sustainability and I feel my aching body and I know that I will not be able to grow food to feed my family.
And this line of thought draws me into thinking about sustainability and self-sustainability. Self-sufficiency. Independence. I think that “self-sustainability,” expressed as individualism, is just another tentacle of violent neoliberalism and I reject it. Community care forever. But still. How? And so, bumping up against another problem (the influence of individualism on our dominant narratives), I encounter again The Dread.
I have nightmares about the next generation starving. My stepkids, my neiphlings, the children in my extended community, and in the vulnerable communities I witness from a distance.
Starvation is the most frequent recurring nightmare I have when it comes to climate change. It haunts me at least once a week.
It also makes me think about how environmental racism and environmental violence are not new; how Indigenous children and Black children have already been facing the kind of food scarcity that I have nightmares about. How the Black Panthers instituted school meal programs to try and address these issues long before climate change became such an urgent issue. But even though environmental racism and violence are not new, the people who have already been facing these harms will also mostly likely face the escalating harms more quickly and more directly. We can’t look at the past through idealistic lenses and pretend that children haven’t already been starving, but we also can’t use that as an excuse to ignore how much worse it will likely get.
Again, the dread.
But also threads of hope, and delight. The Black Panthers have descendants in Black Lives Matter, and food justice efforts exist in projects like Food Not Bombs, and in the Health At Every Size movement, and in Black urban growers (some of whom you can read about here) and Indigenous communities who understand how to care for the Earth in ways that capitalism and colonialism have tried (and failed) to erase.
I just bought adrienne maree brown’s new book, Pleasure Activism, and I am starting to read it. I think that pleasure is necessary, joy is necessary. How will we resist oppression and injustice, and respond to the challenges in front of us, without pleasure, without joy, without hope?
I want both: the fear that tells me what is at stake, and the hope that allows me to keep moving forward.
Right now I have a disproportionate amount of fear, and not a lot of hope.
There are reasons for this, and I refuse to disavow or invalidate my own fear and distress, or the fear and distress of my community members. But as much as I resist the pressure towards “positive thinking” that says feeling fear is the “real” problem, the fact is that I want pleasure and hope, too. I want joy. I want the full range of my emotions, and I want to be able to imagine a future for myself, for my communities, for the children coming after us. I want that for all of us.
Lately I have noticed my thoughts sliding sideways over into, “it would be good if I just died right now,” more often than I am happy about.
Last week I sent a message to Nathan Fawaz, one of my beloved humans, and said:
“Do you have a spoon for a big but short vent? I don’t need a solution but it is just sitting in my chest.
I just really struggle when I think about climate change. I don’t want to live through what is coming. I feel so hopeless and sometimes even suicidal. I won’t, because I think there is a role for people with my skill set in getting through what’s coming and I want to help, and I also think about the impact of that on my communities, but my desire to live does not coexist with my awareness of climate crisis. They do not overlap. When I think about climate change, my desire to live is gone.”
They replied, generously offering me the same kind of response that I would hope to offer someone who brought that vulnerability to me:
I am seeing such a strong value for supportive environments and our roles in cocreating them.
And such an affinity between environment and lifeforce/vitality.
Such a keen and important sensitivity.
I am sorry you are sad and that this is so hard.
I am sorry that there is so much detritus — both human and human-made.
I am sorry for all the disequilibrium.
Every word you wrote resonates so strongly.
They shared an idea that part of what is happening is akin to “ecoableism” – not being able to imagine any future without some expectation of wholeness or perfection on the part of the planet. An inability to see value or hope in an injured and ill planet. As people who are both in “painbodies,” we have faced this kind of ableism and have valuable insider knowledges into how to resist it. We have both felt the pressure of ableist narratives that frame bodies like ours (trans bodies, pain bodies, ill bodies) as less vital, less worthy. We have both resisting those narratives. We resist those narratives on behalf of our communities and other groups, too. (In fact, we talked about this in episode two of Nathan’s podcast, which you can listen to here.)
We cannot deny that we are causing harm and destruction to the Earth through our actions, that we are making a painbody for the Earth, but maybe we can find ways forward from within the crip and disability communities. What becomes possible if we could, as Nathan suggests, “think about my painbody. Your painbody. And all the painbodied people I know. The shimmering that is there. The incandescent connections. The community. The care. The skills that are exclusive to us.”
What becomes possible if we imagine ourselves in relationship with this struggling and suffering and overheating planet, as collaborators as well as defenders and protectors and destroyers. What if we imagine that there is something unique that we can offer, some gift of care or presence.
What if we imagine the unique insider knowledges that each marginalized community brings; the knowledges of persistence, resistance, healing, nurturing, tending, defending, adapting, restoring, remembering?
I am still figuring out what to do with this conversation and with these feelings. I suspect that in practice, this will mean that I keep tending my house plants and thinking about climate change. I’ll keep reading and talking about it. I’ll keep reaching for hope. And now, with this new language, I’ll start watching for where my insider knowledges into ableism might offer me new paths forward, new life-affirming and life-sustaining choices.
Imagining myself into a story of relationship with this planet, even this planet in a new painbody of our thoughtless design, feels hopeful in a way I had not previously had access to. Maybe it will also feel hopeful for you.
Here is another hopeful thing – this article by George Monbiot, “The Earth is in a death spiral: It will take radical action to save us.” Despite the title, this is one of the most hopeful articles I’ve read recently.
I also wanted to share some narrative questions that you can answer on your own. These are some of the questions I might ask someone who is consulting me for narrative therapy and expressing the kinds of experiences and feelings I’ve been describing here.
- What is it about this situation that is causing you so much distress? Is there something that you hold to be precious or sacred that is at stake?
- How did you learn to cherish whatever it is that is at stake?
- What is your relationship with this cherished idea, location, person, or planet? What is one story that comes to your mind when you think about your relationship?
- Have you ever felt hopelessness or distress like this before? How did you get through that time?
- Is there a legacy of responding to hardships like the one you’re in right now, that you can join? Have other people also felt what you are feeling, or something like it?
- Do you have friends or family members or role models who know what you are experiencing, and may be experiencing similar?
- What is it that keeps you in this situation? What are you holding onto, what are you valuing, that has prevented you from ‘checking out’?
- Is there anyone in your life who knows how much you are struggling with this? Do you think it makes a difference to this person that you continue to resist the problem?
- What does your distress say about what you cherish or consider valuable?
I ask myself these questions, and they are not easy to answer.
But I also know that I have strong values of justice and access and collective action. I know that these values can sustain me. And I know that you, too, have strong values and that connecting to these values is possible.
And I know that we can choose to welcome our despair as much as we welcome our actions of resistance and resilience. We can bring curiosity to The Dread, and ask what matters, what’s at stake, and remind ourselves of why we care so deeply. We can honour the depth of our fear and our grief and our anger.
Our despair is as valid as our resistance and resilience. The two can coexist.
We are multi-storied people, with many equally true and sometimes contradictory stories. And this is a multi-storied time. There is no need to flatten it down to a single narrative. Hope and fear. Pleasure and despair.
There is space for all of it.
The whole complex salad of it.