“Reading about the state of the ecological world is like reading the doctor’s notes on the progress of your mother’s terminal cancer.” - Phyllis Windle (1995)
When Professor Julien Kenny died in August 2011, one of T&T’s long-time environmental crusaders called me up. “He’s gone. The environmental world lost a hero today.” Engulfed by a feeling of sadness we both broke into tears. That day we lost not only a friend and mentor, but a respected voice who fearlessly exposed and challenged the reckless environmental destruction in our beautiful country.
The grief and sense of despair that we felt is part of a bigger picture for many in the environmental sustainability movement in T&T. Those of us that work in the sustainability sector, from teachers to fisheries inspectors to NGO workers, deal with ecological disasters such as dying coral reefs, decimation of wildlife, unregulated mining, devastated mangroves, oil covered herons, poisoned crayfish, polluted rivers and oceans, slaughtered marine turtles and other environmental catastrophes on a daily basis. We witness and deal with environmental tragedies and experience a range of emotions that are rarely acknowledged or discussed. The sadness, despair and hopelessness that often accompany our work can be quite overwhelming.
This type of grief that results from the loss of ecosystems caused by natural or man-made events is referred to as environmental grief, a term coined by Dr. Kriss Kevorikan. Environmental grief is a form of disenfranchised grief, which is described by Dr. Ken Doka as grief that is not openly accepted or acknowledged in society. Other examples of disenfranchised grief include grieving over the loss of a loved one to socially unacceptable causes such as suicide or drugs, or grieving over the loss of an animal companion. Environmental grief also includes grief for the long term environmental challenges our future generations will face. Current psychological research indicates that environmentalists may not only grieve and exhibit emotional responses similar to those experienced through immediate personal loss or trauma, but also suffer from a type of acute post-traumatic stress disorder.
Environmental grief is disenfranchised because it is generally dismissed as weakness, misplaced priorities, or even extremism.
Many express environmental grief as anger: at government for being incompetent and corrupt; at nasty corporate polluters whose greed has no limits; at individuals who bask in ignorance; and at each other for not doing enough. Trying to be calm and reassuring in a meeting after spending the morning working in vain to save hundreds of apparently poisoned vultures is a monumental task.
For those who get involved, expressing this passion or frustration will often get them excluded or side-lined in consultations and negotiations. To be effective, those who work on the front line learn to hide and internalise their grief. This is a form of what is called ‘Cassandra’s Curse’. The story goes that in ancient Greece, the Greek god Apollo fell in love with a princess, Cassandra, and gave her the gift of seeing the future. When Cassandra turned him down, Apollo cursed her so that, although she could see the future and knew what was going to happen, no one would believe her warnings so she was powerless to change anything. Environmentalists care passionately about the overwhelming environmental devastation currently taking place at local, national and global levels. In practice, however, it is very hard to do anything about it and their concerns are often dismissed. Cassandra’s curse has a very real psychological cost. Challenge after challenge leaves us weary and we are faced with feelings of disappointment and despair.
Environmental grief is not limited to environmentalists on the front line. It is shared by many in all walks of life. For example, in 2010 a video called “The legal slaughter of sea turtles in Trinidad” was filmed by Stephen Broadbridge, Marc de Verteuil and Kyle de Lima showing a marine turtle being slowly chopped into pieces for food while still alive. This caused outrage and an outpouring of grief. One description of the film captures the grief that many felt. “I couldn’t continue watching, the tears kept coming. I watched this magnificent, helpless creature take a breath while the man continued hacking. I was overwhelmed knowing the torture and pain inflicted on this animal was man-made and unnecessary.” Many other people react with disbelief, “Nah, it’s not that bad,” or feel helpless and just don’t want to know, “I can’t bear to see another dead ocelot.”
It’s pretty clear we experience emotions of frustration, guilt and despair. How do we incorporate these emotions towards a sustainable future? The answer is in understanding change. We live in a time of rapid change, both for the better, and for the worse. We have nicer houses, but more flooding. We have more food, and more obesity. While we celebrate our advances, environmental grief reminds us that we need to be mindful of the costs. Whenever something is gained, something is lost, and with loss comes grief. Accepting this grief as real and understanding that it is shared will help us make better choices as people and as a nation.
Grief is a natural response to loss. It is the emotional suffering we feel when someone or something we love dies or is taken away. Healthy people need a healthy community, and healthy communities need a healthy environment. Loss in any of those places will bring grief, and healing can only happen if we understand that we are connected. As Brother Resistance says “Let meh vibes be one with you, Mother Earth.”
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