The other side of climate grief is climate fury

‘We need to move past the “we’re screwed” narrative on climate change and ecosystem collapse. Fast. A dead world is not our destiny. Yes, the odds are against us as long as we stay on our current path. But we can and must radically change that path. We can do this, and we will.’ – Eric Holthaus

In the week since the release of the IPBES report that alerted us to the likely loss of a million species, there have been a spate of articles engaging with climate grief. Activist Rob Law wrote in the Guardian about needing to honour the pain and move through the sadness towards a sense of agency. Emily Johnson argued beautifully for the ways in which taking collective action can offset the sometimes overwhelming sense of loss.

I agree with them both. In my experience, climate action is the only known treatment for climate grief. But I find that I have also been increasingly questioning the notion of moving through or past grief, as if this trauma is something from which we can walk away.

For an artist or writer, the climate emergency offers an additional existential challenge. We’ve lost the world of realism, the ability to write anything approaching a ‘timeless’ novel. Beyond that, climate change, or anthropogenic climate disruption, or climate breakdown, is painful to look at. It is traumatic to look our own death in the eye; the understanding that we are responsible for the deaths of others and the collapse of ecosystems is very hard to integrate with a coherent sense of a moral self. But look this in the eye we must. It is absolutely the role of writers and artists to explore difficult emotions, to go into the dark places and return with something that will help. If not hope, then what?

The climate emergency, the imminent threat of ecosystem collapse, has long seemed to me to be a problem of time. It is desperately urgent, and also requires an understanding of deep time and long-term thinking. It raises unanswerable questions about how we might be accountable for the future, while demanding that we pay for the decisions of previous generations. It is haunted by questions of too-lateness, questions of inevitability, that activists are continually trying to dispel. The question of too-lateness has helped us all procrastinate for thirty years now, and it’s still not too late. These absurdities complicate the emotional terrain.

Grief is already complicated. I am worried about expressions of sadness, particularly coming from white people like myself who get to live in wealthy nations. Extinction discourse is the term anthropologists and sociologists use to describe the expressions of grief that accompanied and still accompany the attempted genocide of First Nations people, here and elsewhere. A performance of mourning the loss can be an attempt to absolve the mourner of responsibility for a crime in which they are complicit. In this context, I find myself questioning expressions of climate grief, particularly those that focus on animal life before human life. Is climate grief helping, and is it really something we can move past? These are not just questions for Australians wrestling with the legacy of frontier wars and unresolved sovereignty. We all inhabit the web of colonisation. We need only listen to Pacific leaders calling for urgent action to be reminded that this is not a problem about white people’s feelings.

The thing is, I’m not really sad any more. I’m angry. And the role of anger is so often missing from these discussions of climate grief. Why is that? Are we ashamed to admit that we are furious about this problem, even as we are complicit in it? We live with the idea that grief has stages, that we move through them towards a final, serene acceptance. But Elizabeth Kübler-Ross herself argued that this was a mistake; the experience is never linear. Perhaps, in this case, it is never finished. Increasingly, my grief and sadness come and go, but what remains, in all its ugliness, is fury.

I am furious at governments that have capitulated to coal companies. I’m furious at Exxon for predicting our current level of warming and yet continuing to burn oil. I’m furious at the politicians who are letting the Great Barrier Reef die on their watch. I’m furious at Adani – and at Equinor, the Norwegian company that wants to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight. I’m furious that oil and gas companies have been able to use their millions to block policy change. I love animals, but I’m mostly furious about what will happen, what is happening, to people. At the Liberal MP who suggested that Pacific Islanders should move to higher ground. At the impression I have that the very wealthy on our planet, those most responsible for ecosystem collapse and climate breakdown, people who have the same or better information than we do, have struck some awful Malthusian deal – they know that a lot of people will die, and have decided that it’s worth the money.

I’m angry that Solar Reserve hasn’t been able to finance the Aurora solar thermal project in Port Augusta, for which the local community fought so hard. I’m angry that regional communities are at the mercy of distant market forces when it comes to our futures; that it so often feels that decisions are made elsewhere, way beyond our control. I’m angry that the lives of my fellow volunteer firefighters are increasingly at risk in catastrophic conditions. I’m angry that we didn’t have the climate election twenty years ago, when we could have made a just transition more carefully. I’m absolutely livid about the time we’ve wasted.

This world isn’t vanishing. It’s being demolished.

Depression has never felt to me like an absence of hope. David Foster Wallace’s word for it was horror. Mine is often like rage or disgust, a bitterness turned in. I’m not writing this because I want to tell other people how to feel, quite the opposite. As climate grief seems omnipresent and depression about the future ubiquitous, perhaps it is better not to see these as stages that can or should be overcome. If there is something on the other side of these feelings, maybe it does not have to be reasonable, and it does not have to be hope. We can still gather that grief and sadness and rage into action.

Writing makes me feel engaged in the world, and at the moment, fury is partly what keeps me coming back to my desk. But even though I believe that this is useful work, I’ll keep leaving it on Fridays, when I can, to join with climate strikers. I’ll keep mourning with Extinction Rebellion, but I won’t leave my anger behind. There is a place for that anger, not just in Saturday’s election, but in our towns and workplaces, in our schools and homes, and on the streets. For me, the other side of climate grief is climate fury.



Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Well expressed article on the totally topical. I don’t get angry any more though, I play jazz (particularly late at night) – anger is wasted emotion, particularly where and when clear thinking is needed in respect of protest about that which we don’t seem to term ‘the anthropocene’ any more – and I believe I know why.

  2. One of the great — if not the greatest — unspokens about the Climate Crisis is the rage that many of the young feel toward their own parents, both for their choice of actions and inactions concerning the imminent catastrophe.

    Where once the villain could be painted as coming from across a border or with a different coloured face or different choice of uniform, now the ones most responsible (and irresponsible) coming from within ones own house.

    It is a horrible confronting revelation to deal with everyday.

    And how the resulting rage eventually manifests itself is still to be seen, but it won’t be pretty.

  3. Interesting!

    You make such sibling uprisings look, sound and feel like a Greek tragedy – so where and why these sudden oedipal attacks of which you write – in respect of social class etc. – or is the phenomenon widespread?

    Seems an odd place to apportion blame for climate change to me – both too close to home and not thought through. Perhaps it’s another form of vegan anarchism?

      1. Never watched Sky News – though the sky is falling in – and all you come up with is hearsay – more noise.

  4. Anger is often replaced by frustration. We have a govt that refuses to acknowledge Climate Change, the loss of habitat and Animal Abuse. If we have anger it should be fueling us to revolution not just venting.

  5. Terrafurie = Earth Anger or Earth Rage. From my book, ‘Earth Emotions’: “I was asked to create a new word by ecologically minded friends, who felt a common anger about what was happening to the world but could not put that precise form of anger into meaningful English. I responded with “terrafurie” or earth rage.

    Terrafurie expresses the extreme anger unleashed within those who can clearly see the self-destructive tendencies in the current forms of industrial-technological society but feel unable to change the direction of such tierracide and ecocide … The anger is also directed at challenging the status quo in both intellectual and socio-political terms. Terrafurie is anger targeted at those who command the forces of Earth destruction. I think of it as a protective anger, not one that is aggressive.”

  6. Whilst I share your anger at the many examples of climate inaction I disagree with the following.
    ” while demanding that we pay for the decisions of previous generations.”
    “I love animals, but I’m mostly furious about what will happen, what is happening, to people.”
    Neither blame shifting onto other generations, or justifiying a position on animal rights are supported by the facts. The primary drivers of our global climate/poisoning/wild animal extinctions/habitat loss are the result of homo sapiens activities. The data on human population and per capita consumption shows continued compounding increases. The figures for increase in consumption from 1960 to 2001 are fourfold and continue to be exponential. That evidence would suggest that from generation to generation our behaviours are not being modified. And last weeks Fed election demonstrates our continued obfustication re- planetary responsibility. Further I love some animals more than others, typically the ones close to me, but how can we put homo sapiens on a pedestal when we are the root cause of our current predicament

  7. The article by Jennifer and concomitant thread of debate point out how complex, how pervasive, the environ-ment/climate crisis issue has become. It now touches, perhaps attacks, every ecosystem, every landscape, every ocean,lake, glacier, river, and all the forms/genera of living things on Earth. Needless to say, via massive networks of human communication now, it inevitably touches somehow upon me and you – all of our kind. For myself, it feels firstly, overwhelming in depth and scope. That has e;licited anxiety and grief, especially as I have read a huge amount about exactly how the faband waters is being assaulted viciously. Moreover, I know ric of the atmosphere, soils and water is being continuously assaulted and poisoned. Moreover, I know much about the many fine ideas and projects which exist right now, to reduce the awful impact of “turbo-toxic-capitalism” on the planet. If put into action on global scale, they would hugely stem the tsunami of (humanity’s) destruction across the biosphere. That is where my own anger mounts to fury; knowing that the crisis can be turned back somewhat, almost immediately. In certain places, under various politico-economic structures, solar power and storage, geothermal or hydro-power provision, or renewables based transport are already forging ahead. Those ingenious efforts console me a little, mitigate my anger. However, what makes one/me absolutely outraged is watching the drongo-ishly slow-moving, denialist and backward governments of mainly Anglo-nations. Australia and the US (along with a few smaller) are shamefully lagging on climate, and unethically retarding progress to lower the now critical levels of climate-induced danger we face in our countries. There is NO EXCUSE! Nobody with a brain larger than a pea, which excludes Matt Canavan and Pauline Hanson, can be unaware that a whole raft of renewable energy measures need total support from both private business and policy decisions in Canberra. Furious barely describes my mood, because if the environment and climate change (as a human-caused disaster-in-the-making) had been acted upon seriously from about 1990, Australia would not have the following: ongoing extinctions of mammals, insects and birdlife as I write; arable lands dying as food sources from abuse by fertilisers, very frequent droughts, high summer temperatures etc; stupid land-clearing that denudes the country of forest, animal habitat and good soil; loss of flow in the Murray-Darling Basin; and finally a reputation for being progressive with alternatives to oil, coal and gas. To our eternal shame, tiny countries like Denmark and even developing ones in Africa, outpace us easily in the renewables sector. What is maintaining Australia’s weird ecological self-destruction is poor political will,stodgy traditionalism, abysmal climate change policy moves and the power of big capital in gas and coal. Time is not waiting for Morrison and some of the dim-witted trogs of federal parliament, who continue to refuse the dire facts of what is going on everywhere. I must continue to be disgusted, but act with righteous anger, to ensure Australia plays our part to prevent a bigger global catastrophe than the one mounting up since 1960. Australia is, correctly so, seen as a pariah, a non-cooperating dinosaur, on the climate issue. Time for elected sleepwalkers of any political hue,to put their ears to the ground. The rumble they detect will become an earthquake of regret and fury if the Liberals fail on this from right now to the next election. Unfortunately I have serious doubts as to their will, capacity and simple common sense!

  8. Come away from there,” one or the other of us called uneasily, because we weren’t prepared to confront what climate change would mean for our children, to say nothing of our children’s children.

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