This commentary considers problems of privilege in climate anxiety and grief, asking which humans have left the deepest marks in planetary history, in the sense of the Anthropocene or “human age,” and who will suffer most as a result.
By Heidi Hart
If far-right populism favors only certain people, in the sense of “Herrenvolk democracy” or populism for the white and preferably wealthy, does the climate-active left risk exclusionary thinking as well? When discussing the Anthropocene, an often contested but still useful term for the human age on earth, which humans’ traces in the geologic record hold most weight? Who has done the most to add untenable amounts of carbon to the atmosphere, and who will suffer most as a result? What about thinking beyond the human, to grieve endangered and already lost species? And whose voices are heard most loudly, asking these questions?
The realities of climate collapse can feel overwhelming, even for those not yet directly affected. I recently came up against a blind spot in my own work, curating a climate grief project involving mostly white women, when I read a thoughtful essay on the “whiteness of climate anxiety.” Sarah Jaquette Ray (2021) asks an even more pressing question than in my list above: “is climate anxiety just code for white people wishing to hold onto their way of life or get ‘back to normal,’ to the comforts of their privilege?” She notes that ecoanxiety (a term the American Psychological Association defines as “chronic fear of environmental doom” (Clayton et al., 2017) can lead to “eugenic thinking” (Wilson, 2018) and other explicitly racist aspects of ecofascism.
This sounds like a dramatic leap, especially for well-meaning environmentalists who may have delighted in Covid-era news of quieting oceans, goats meandering down Welsh streets, or dolphins swimming in Venice canals, however, false many of those reports (Daly, 2020) and who now bemoan the return of carbon-emitting, human-driven machines to the roads, seas, and skies. This seems like an innocent and even virtuous outlook. But when I hear casual comments about “the planet telling us to go away,” I now hear a dangerous implication there, too, one that I have felt myself in fantasies of green growth overtaking highways and the windows of suburban homes. If humans are a part of nature, too, we need to repair and adapt without simply imagining our own demise – or worse, that of those who lack the resources to make art about their fear and grief.
Anxiety about impending floods and wildfires is easier to bear when you can afford to move away. The pang of having to give up transatlantic flights, red meat, or the Instagram excesses of fast fashion is hardly the pain of losing one’s home with nowhere to go, or of having to keep working in dangerous conditions while others enjoy remote work, in a pandemic that is also tied to climate crisis through habitat loss. From this perspective, even grief for lost species, performed in contemplative, virtual art experiences such as Parallel Effect’s Vigil for the Smooth Handfish (2020) begins to feel like something of a luxury. So does the pleasure of watching dystopian films and TV series, designed by corporate media that “gauge the sociopolitical moment and hope to capture audiences who are now sensitized to dangers without taking things so far as to alienate audiences or the conservatives” (Kaplan, 2016: 12).
When confronted with the problem of art as luxury, I have to step back and remember the motivation for my own curatorial project. During a fall 2020 workshop at the Sixty-Eight Art Institute in Copenhagen, I was faced with the choice between holding onto hope for a return to planetary “normalcy” and accepting that climate collapse is already happening. Even the conceptual move of acceptance led to an embodied reaction (panic, heaviness, confusion about where to turn my attention) and a need for help in the process of grief. I recalled the practice of music thanatology, or improvising harp music in response to a dying human body, and I wondered what would happen if that practice were extended to the collective grief for the world as we humans know it.
Six months later, the project is developing into an international constellation of public events, audiovisual art, and “extinction theatre.” The goal is not to wallow in despair (another critique of “collapsology”) but to face loss – not only of endangered species but also of our own innocence and environmentally costly comforts – in order to move forward into new ideas for the future. As Roy Scranton (2015) puts it, in his influential book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, “as biological and cultural diversity is threatened across the world by capitalist monoculture and mass extinction, we must build arks: not just biological arks, to carry forward endangered genetic data, but also cultural arks, to carry forward endangered wisdom” (109). Our Climate Thanatology project is an ark of sorts, a holding place for a moment of realization: we are losing the planet we know, and everyone will be affected, as all have been by the pandemic.
Humans and other species are inextricably linked in the “biocultural phenomenon” of extinction (Rose et al., 2017: 5). But because not all will be harmed in the same way, the situation calls for change, too, in individual choices and in institutional power structures. But how to move toward change, a change based on climate justice, not only for endangered plants and animals but for the humans suffering as well? Part of our project is to learn from Shoshone tribal leader Darren Parry (interviewed here last month) to better understand collective grief from the perspective of a descendant of massacre survivors in the American West. Learning how generational grief and restoration can occur, not only in families but also in the land itself, can help us better imagine the long-term process of coming to terms with a damaged planet, and our complicity in that.
We are also questioning “who counts as a witness” (Nixon, 2011: 16) in places struck by climate trauma. Because most of our work takes place in Scandinavia, we are well aware of the uncomfortably hot summers that are quickly becoming a “new normal” (Steinthorsdottir, 2019), but we have not arrived here after fleeing war, fire, drought, or flood. Seeing our arts constellation as a tool and not as an end in itself is helpful. As we prepare for public programs in Copenhagen, learning from refugee communities will be a part of our project, with awareness that they have their own criticality and imaginative work to contribute.
One of our events is a Lost Species Walk in Assistens Kirkegård, the historic welfare cemetery in a part of the city now chafing at “ghetto” status (Achiume, 2020). Participating in a parallel walk through the Refugee Voices Tours project will help us to see the city as an ecosystem that complicates Copenhagen’s “greenest city” reputation and that includes grief over lost homelands. We do not want to be “extractive” as many public programs are, in borrowing from other cultures for their own use, however inclusive they proport to be (Costanza-Chock, 2020: 89). We want to learn what we are missing.
Our collective is also learning from other climate grief projects as they do their own reckonings with privilege. For example, the Remembrance Day for Lost Species project recently hosted a video presentation on their process of understanding terms like “extinction” … “in terms of violence [and] its use in white and Euro-centric discourses to invisibilize, justify and even promote colonial acts” (Mitchell, 2020). As I work to develop a curatorial methodology, I am also learning from museum workers who critique nationalist and exclusionary practices in order to “drop the usual contrast between a supposedly sealed ‘inside’ and a critical ‘outside’” in exhibition spaces (Bayer et al., 2021: 24).
If the Anthropocene has become a “loaded term for the end to the dream/nightmare of a hyper-separated nature” (Rose et al., 2017: 5), this demise is also an opportunity. Naming a geologic age after ourselves risks human hubris, certainly, but it also allows for critical distance. When that space opens up, it is no surprise if grief enters. To see consumer and corporate excesses and their costs to others (human or not) can be painful. I recently came across these lines in a new book on waste published in Denmark (Frantzen, 2021), quoting the poet Inger Christensen (translation mine):
Now we turn on the light. Somewhere we use up
long-concentrated plankton. Humans
consuming a million summers a day.
Clear seeing, however difficult, can lead to clarity in action, too. We can’t get those “million summers” back, but we can grieve the loss and imagine a more responsible future that puts care before consumption and community, for humans and other species, before post-human dreams.
Bayer, Natalie; Belinda Kazeem-Kaminski and Sternfeld, Nora. (2021). Curating as Anti-Racist Practice. Espoo, Finland and Vienna: Aalto ARTS Books/University of Applied Arts Vienna.
Costanza-Chock, Sasha. (2020). Design Justice: Community-led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Frantzen, Mikkel Krause. (2021). Klodens Fald. Copenhagen: Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology Publications.
Kaplan, E. Ann. (2016). Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rose, Deborah; van Dooren, Thom and Chrulew, Matthew. (2017). Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Scranton, Roy. (2015). Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. San Francisco, CA: City Lights.