Climate grief can turn to climate anger, which can be a powerful force for change
Young people suffer from climate grief, Daisy Wyatt, 19, told the People’s Assembly on the Climate and Ecological Emergency, in Greenwich, south-east London, on Saturday.
Climate grief is “coming to the realisation that you will not live the life that your parents have lived, or the life that our parents have told you that you will live”, Daisy, a nursery worker and nanny, said.
Of all the points made at this event, in which more than 100 local people took part, this seemed to me one of the most important.
The world Daisy’s generation lives in is, in many ways, darker and more forbidding than the one we older people grew up in. It is hard, but necessary, to admit this to ourselves.
I am in my early 60s. I have an optimistic outlook, and young grandchildren. I fervently believe that, in their lifetime, people may change the world for the better, in all sorts of ways we can only vaguely imagine now.
But in the near term – the next decade or two, when first those of Daisy’s age, and then my grandchildren, will be living their adult lives – things could get very rocky, in a way that they were not when I was growing up.
The effects of climate change – heatwaves such as the recent one in India, for example; wildfires; floods – will be a big part of it. They will exacerbate such social tragedies as wars and famines, that my generation also witnessed.
Many young people can see this coming. And it keeps them up at night.
Here are five thoughts about this.
1. If we are going to communicate between generations, we older people need to accept and try to understand climate grief
That means: listen. The world is full enough of the privileged ignoring the oppressed, the powerful ignoring the downtrodden and men ignoring women and children. Listen.
2. This all looks different in the global south
While climate grief is often related to the future, the lives of millions of people in the global south have already been turned upside down by the effects of climate change.
Deteriorating conditions for agriculture, extreme heat waves, flooding and sea level rise – all linked either directly or indirectly to global warming – have ruined many communities. (The World Meteorological Organisation publishes a survey each year, here.)
One result, since the 1980s, has been efforts in Latin American, African and Asian countries to bind together the aims of social justice and living in harmony with nature. Movements in rich countries have much to learn from this “environmentalism of the poor”.
3. It’s too simple to say “our generation has failed yours”
Climate scientists, newspapers columnists and others reacted that way to the school pupils’ climate strikes that started in February.
On an emotional level, this risks shifting the conversation. Suddenly, we’re not talking about how young people face climate change, but about some older people’s shame or guilt or whatever. And on a what-can-we-do level, this “our generation has failed” stuff makes no sense.
George Monbiot, the Guardian writer, claims: “We [older people] have lived as if your [school pupils’] lives had no importance ... We ate your future to satisfy our greed.”
Nonsense. We lived our lives in a society ruled over by a small class of people who shaped the economy to feed their power and wealth. Sure, some people in the rich countries were content to enjoy the higher living standards engendered by the post-war boom and the struggles of previous generations to redistribute some of the wealth. Yes, some ignored the violence, injustice and inequality that persisted. But many didn’t.
Many of the 1970s generation took part in anti-war movements and (related) battles against the expansion of nuclear power. People sought ways to combat oppression on an international level, e.g. in the movement supporting South Africans in their struggle against apartheid. Perhaps the most obviously successful social movement was feminism, which started to uproot hundreds of years of patriarchy.
Many of the 1990s generation – who became adults when the post-war boom had been overtaken by neoliberalism – participated in the global anti-capitalist movement, and began to understand very well the connection between social injustice and the ecological disasters that were unfolding.
George Monbiot does acknowledge that older people “are not equally to blame” ... but then talks about “our failure to challenge the oligarchs who are sacking the Earth”.
In many ways our challenges failed. But to suggest we never made them is stupid. Better to discuss with successive generations what we can learn from what went wrong.
4. Averting dangerous climate change means transforming technological, social and economic systems, so that we can all live better. It is not about accepting the need to suffer
At the People's Assembly on Saturday, Daisy continued her talk about climate grief by saying: “We are going to have to live on about one-eighth of the carbon footprint that our parents’ generation had.”
Right – in the sense that the level of carbon emissions needs to be slashed, in the shortest possible time, to avert dangerous climate change.
This does not mean, though, that people will have to live lives that are eight times poorer or eight times more miserable than we do now.
This is because, in the first place, most carbon emissions into the atmosphere (which cause global warming) are not produced by individuals.
Three-quarters of these emissions are from fossil fuel use – and most fossil fuels are not consumed by individuals. Mostly, they are consumed by big technological systems over which we have little control: industrial and agricultural complexes that gorge out products in energy-inefficient ways; transport systems; electricity production systems; buildings and city environments – even military systems. (The US Department of Defense consumes more fossil fuels than Nigeria with its population of 200 million.)
Fossil fuel use can and will be cut by changing these systems.
Take transport. Yes, it would help cut fossil fuel use if SUV drivers went by bicycle instead. But individual changes of behaviour alone will not be enough. What has to change is the whole idea that urban transport works by moving people around in mobile metal armchairs. The whole system needs to favour public transport, bicycles, walking and green spaces.
The century-old drive to design cities around cars, roads and parking spaces needs to be reversed. Everyone at Saturday’s event understood this, and cheered calls for the cancellation of the Silvertown tunnel project (which will increase car use in London) and for investment in public transport.
Transport is just one example. Buildings, too, need to be designed – or, in the case of existing ones, retrofitted – so that only a minimum of artificial heat and light is needed. Industry needs to be transformed, to stop churning out products that make money for manufacturers, and to produce things that people really need. And so on.
The technologies already exist for us all to live comfortable, meaningful lives without systems that gulp down fossil fuels.
Farmers and agronomists know how to grow healthy food that does not rely on fossil fuel inputs. Engineers know how to generate electricity from renewable sources.
But to realise all this potential, the social and economic system has to change. Those with power and wealth, who rely on the fossil-fuel-intensive economy to keep their power and wealth, have to be challenged.
5. Climate grief can turn to climate anger. Climate anger, combined with understanding, can be a very powerful force for change
Grief for a future that will not happen can turn into anger at the obstructions that block the road to a better, meaningful future. That is why hundreds of thousands of school pupils have been going on strike on Fridays, in dozens of countries, at political inaction on climate change.
This is a welcome wake-up call.
Many of the school strikers are calling on workers to join them on one of the bigger strikes planned for later this year, on Friday 20 September. Let’s be there.
The photo of school strikers in Nottingham on 21 June is from the UK Student Climate Network facebook page.