Collective grief is a funny thing. We realise this as we’re going through the Covid19 crisis, and we realise it, similarly, as we’re confronted with the Climate Crisis. It’s funny, because while everyone is going through the same process, not everyone is at the same stage of grief. Globally, we are dealing with Covid deniers and climate deniers, with bargainers, the people who argue that it’s not as bad as it seems, and we’re also dealing with those who are so frustrated that they just choose to ignore the situation completely.
When it comes to the climate crisis, most people are angry about something, or at somebody; at politicians; at family members; at corporations; or at fast fashion. It’s usually a punctual outburst of frustration, a kind of frustration that we have learned to live with and to shrug off because nothing ever really changes. We have learned to numb ourselves. Not because we’re bad people, but because most western people who do not yet feel the effect of global heating do not yet feel a sense of urgency.
Partly, I think this is because the topic is vast, complicated, and frightening. For people who live comfortable lives in areas which are not yet noticeably negatively affected by the climate crisis, it is much easier to let statistics and graphs of hurricanes and fire seasons and flood victims stay exactly that: statistics, graphs, and impersonal numbers. Even in literature and art, nature has, for the longest time, remained isolated. While there is a wide array of texts across genres and artforms that address gender, race and class, it is still oftentimes surprising to see a text outside of the science fiction genre that addresses human connection to the environment and environmental degradation in a raw and honest way.
As somebody from a rich, European country with a colonial legacy, I acknowledge that it is often easy to feel stunted in the face of environmental destruction. It is easy to view the situation as something that is happening far away that doesn’t concern me, as something that I cannot influence. But that is exactly where art and literature comes into effect, and that is also where creative non-fiction is so effective at providing those of us with a wake-up call who are still trying so hard to will themselves asleep.
Creative non-fiction doesn’t show you the headlines about floods in Bangladesh, or about the forest diebacks all over Europe, or Satellite pictures of a lake disappearing somewhere in Africa. It tells you of the way someone felt when they were driving through the forest that they grew up in, seeing the trees that they used to hide under as a child drying out and dying. It tells you the story of the girl who used to go ice-skating on lakes in winter but hasn’t been able to do that in years, because they don’t freeze over anymore, and maybe never will again. It tells you the story of the man who lost the family photographs he had of his mother because he couldn’t take them with him when he had to escape the wildfires. It can tell you about the victims of Hurricane Dorian, looking for their sister, aunt, and cousin under the rubble of their collapsed houses.
Creative Non-Fiction can give us that necessary push to progress into the next stage of climate grief, to go past Denial, Anger, and Bargaining, into climate depression. Among the many bitter lessons that the COVID Pandemic has taught us, there is one that is applicable to the climate crisis too, and it’s one that is at the same time oddly comforting. Both of these planetary crises are showing us that no one really lives in isolation from others, no one is an island. And just as it helps us to see other people being open about their struggles with mental health or loneliness during quarantine, Creative Non-Fiction about the climate crisis can help us to recognize our own feelings of grief about environmental loss, and it can make us acknowledge a grief that many are too scared to really feel yet. It allows us that cathartic moment of feeling that it is okay to feel anxious about our world being close to slipping through our feelings. It allows us to see that we are not just naive hippies for feeling sad about deforestation and species loss. Instead, we can be honest with ourselves, and we can see that we’re not alone in what we feel.
But further than that, creative non-fiction also gives us the opportunity to see a way out. In the common model of the stages of grief, depression is followed by acceptance. When it comes to Climate Grief, accepting the fact that we are facing a colossal loss cannot be, and should not be confused with compliance or giving up. Instead, it must be followed by action. Non-fiction provides the call to action perhaps better than any other literary genre. It is surely in part due to our fascination with real, raw, and human stories that Greta Thunberg achieved the reach and influence that she has today. Because we all loved to read the story of the school girl who stubbornly stands up for the things she knows are right, fearlessly confronting the leaders of the world. And the climate movement is full of stories like these: of inspiring activists, not only those who are white and cisgender, but also those incredibly important stories of indigenous activists all over the world, of black and queer and disabled activists, who are advocating for climate justice in different intersections, standing up for those people and places who will be most affected and are least represented. They are the people who show us that we can make a difference, and they are people who look and think and love like us. Creative Non-Fiction gives us the opportunity to see these activists as who they are: people just like you and me, who make the choice not to accept the unacceptable.