Despair is for the fortunate

Grief alone can never be a driver of climate action. We must let hope try.
Andrew Glassford

On Monday, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the final part of its sixth assessment report on climate change.

The media coverage we have seen of the report underlines its profound lack of ability to actually communicate the seriousness of climate change.

We've heard the phrase 'wake up call' a lot. We've heard the sound of a thousand policy experts typing their articles, with titles like "Dabblers like me can take a stand on the environment and still fish for profits", or "Moon dust fired into space to stop global warming?". There will probably be a useful but ultimately vapid article in there too about "five fits to cool down in the climate crisis".

Grasping for the usual politics or cultural frames in an existential crisis is like a comfort blanket in a hurricane. Image: Unsplash/Saikiran Kesari.

If you're feeling a sense of futility or maybe even ennui, don't worry – you're not alone.

All of these types of commentary are deflections and expressions of despair. Grasping for the usual politics or cultural frames in an existential crisis is like a comfort blanket in a hurricane. Relying on those currently in power to fix these problems, or expecting one more damning report will jolt them into action, shutters out the radical and necessary departures from the norm to deal with climate breakdown; that itching feeling on the back of your morality, as we try and square our ecologically destructive individual and most importantly societal actions with the gaping circle that is climate breakdown.

That feeling is the reminder that we all know we can't go on this way and yet the well played rhythms keep a steady beat. It is a deep inevitability, a debilitating despair that keeps us tied to tried and tested politics or economic methods. That kind of logic generally holds: "we've just not incentivised billionaires enough to save the planet."

In one Lancet study, 45% of respondents said that their feelings about climate change had a negative effect on their daily life and functioning. Image: Unsplash/Ronan Furuta.

Moving on from the quasi-questioning of the media we also get the more forthright morose positions, starting with the well-documented climate grief which strikes Gen Z. This manifests itself a lot on social media, heightening depression or anxiety. In a December 2021 Lancet study, 45% of respondents said that their feelings about climate change had a negative effect on their daily life and functioning.

Then we have people throwing paint on buildings or soup at artworks, in outrage at the staggering profits of Shell and BP, or getting arrested after sitting in a road and demanding that we insulate Britain. To quote one member of the direct action group during their blockades of roads across the country, "It's the only thing we can do to try and wake people up to the fact our Government is destroying the future for our children." Valiant – I would go as far as to say brave. But driven by grief, to a point of despair, to lie in the street.

Those who have blockaded Britain's roads are brave, but driven by grief. Image: Flickr/Matt Hrkac.

I’m making grief and despair the target of this because grief alone can never be a driver of action. Social anger can emerge from a moment of profound societal grief like from the murder of George Floyd for example, which did make a sea change and shook the idea that the police are always a force for good.

But those organisers and activists from Black Lives Matter did not lounge about like Victorian poets waiting on the day their freedom would not be questioned. In the words of Killer Mike at the time, "Now is the time to plot, plan, strategise, organise and mobilise." From grief and despair, anger and belligerence can spring at some point turning into action, but grief in itself is not a forward motion. It is hindsight's best friend, beckoning ever in reverse to misplaced thoughts and actions.

This is not to say we should become emotionally cold, to fail to process and understand the turmoil we as a species are going through. But our climate grief cannot be allowed to crystallise into apathy. We have royally fucked it up and yet we can only save ourselves.  

Grief alone can never be a driver of action. Image: Flickr/Matt Hrkac.

You can sigh and look at the wall, thinking about how much we have been done wrong by over the last 80 years when it comes to the climate. Catatonic in righteous despair, I spent Monday afternoon there: scrolling through the U.N report, through Twitter, back to the report, back to Twitter, to the BBC News website. All of their dire warnings elicit the same response: How could we? However we can't live like this. The worst thing is, it would be so deliciously easy.

Despair is a fucking liberty. Despair is a luxurious coat of raven feathers and sludging shoes dragging us into a blob of death. If only we had that luxury of inaction. If only our despairing bones did not amount to destruction of the world as we know it. We don't have the time for morose acquiescence to our circumstances, we must do something about it. Do not go quietly into that hot, humid night. Otherwise that pit of despair will prove itself more powerful than the humanity we all hold.

Do not let despair rule. Let hope try. Image: Unsplash/Jon Tyson.

To demand hope is a bit of a bland end to any article, a grey smock to temper an dazzling outfit. But as Raymond WIlliams wrote, "To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing."  

We are to be concerned now, with every breath we can spare, on the work and action it will take to spare this world from our gravest mistake. Do not let despair rule. Let hope try. Hope requires a leap of faith that at some point someone will catch you, so always hope in pairs. Be critical of one another, demand better from our comrades and those in power and when the time comes to step across that threshold from climate grief to climate resistance, hold onto your buddy's hand. You're gonna need them.

Andrew Glassford is the co-founder of Green New Deal Media.

Feature image: Sonse/Flickr.

Andrew Glassford

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