No Good Grief: Ecstatic Counter-Mapping Amongst Usable Facts

In times of crises of the spirit, we are aware of all need, our need for each other and our need for ourselves. We call up our fullness; we turn, and act. We begin to be aware of our correspondences, of the acknowledgment in us of necessity, and of the land.

Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry

[Because] hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency.

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

Grieving—about climate? In recent years, the concept has gained currency across a range of occupational settings and areas of academic specialization, literary studies among them. Perhaps you may occasionally experience something like ‘climate grief’ yourself. It could be the shawl you’ve been nabbing, the wrap you wear when you head out the door and into our alien weathers. Or maybe you are a high school student or undergraduate, and this is the framework that has been extended to you; perhaps this is the pre-fab house that you have been gifted, as though you could live in there, as though such a house might shelter, and feed, and promise.

Well, climate grief is no such house: you can’t live there, don’t even try! What you need instead is hope in action, hope in axes[1] There is much to do; come with me, let’s be troubled, and let’s trouble this old bone.

Several months back, I fired off a curmudgeonly tweet calling out the bad idiom of “climate grief” that had insinuated itself into many environmental conversations. After all, we have to be careful with our idioms: they’re powerful, and they materially impact the kinds of worlds we can contest, as well as those that we might yet shepherd into being.

The summer had been filled with intense, galvanizing action and sustained, collective unrest in the fight for racial justice. The George Floyd protest movement erupted in May with anguished Black Americans and their accomplices and allies demanding justice for the countless lives that have been harmed and cut short by police brutality and the racist institutions that produce it. In response to the call for comprehensive structural change, the repressive apparatuses of the state sought to quash resistance and interrupt solidarity wherever they could, often through bruising, blinding, suffocating force. [1]

In my own city of Philadelphia, extraordinary abuses of police power included the spraying of rubber bullets and the liberal deployment of tear gas, first against protesters marching on I-676, and subsequently against peaceful residents, many whom were sheltering in their homes in West Philadelphia, a predominantly Black area of the city with a painful history of police brutality and state-authored threats to Black life. [2] It bears repeating that in May of 1985, Philadelphia police killed eleven people, among them five children, in an airstrike against MOVE, a local black liberation group. Water cannons, tear gas, and over 10,000 rounds of ammunition were also fired. Faced with a blaze blooming from the bomb, police commissioner Gregore Sambor “critically and fatally” decided to let it burn on. The unchecked fire consumed a total of 61 homes, leaving 250 Philadelphians homeless. [3]  

I recount the police state siege on MOVE because as a body being fed, housed, and nourished on this now-heavily policed, rapidly gentrifying Lenapehoking soil, I am accountable to the tentacular grip that histories like this must hold on the present. It’s a story that should stabilize and clarify our commitments to the struggle for racial justice, and, in simple point of fact, it is a story of the genocidal will of environmental racism, an engine that has long-powered environmental decision- and place-making in the United States.

The MOVE bombing also provides crucial context for the terrain of struggle on which climate justice work is now playing out. More specifically, there is a growing understanding that policing must be considered alongside other hallmarks of environmental racism, including exposure to extreme heat. As Catalina Jaramillo notes, this increasingly lethal form of extreme weather disproportionately impacts low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. “Areas such as Hunting Park [Philadelphia], where residents are predominantly Hispanic and Black, have surface temperatures as much as 22 degrees higher than in leafier areas of the city.” [4] The conditions associated with ‘urban heat island effect’ are a legacy of redlining practices of the mid-twentieth century, many of which map directly onto other forms of environmental imperilment, including those that arise from policing, manufactured resource scarcity (food deserts), and disinvestment in public services. Savvy to these intersecting forces of endangerment and deprivation, just weeks ago, Congresswoman Cori Bush and Senators Ed Markey and Tammy Duckworth teamed up with grassroots environmental justice leaders to introduce the Environmental Justice Mapping and Data Collection Act, a vital piece of legislation dedicated to “identifying and connecting environmental justice communities with policy outcomes.” [5] This legislation hinges upon the fact that police killings cannot be disentangled from more obvious instances of environmental racism, including exposure to pollution, proximity to nuclear waste deposition sites, and impacts related to the contamination of soil and water. Rather, risk factors like intense heat, compromised air quality, fossil fuel industrial activity, and police violence must be assessed and mapped together. 

Reflecting on the press release from Congresswoman Bush, my thoughts moved to Francis Lo’s A Series of Un/Natural Disasters (2016). This collection of poetry queries the many forms of disaster that variegate our catastrophic present: “Does there need to be an act of nature for something to be qualified as a disaster,” Lo asks, and what of “manmade disasters—the prison industrial complex and its disproportionate effect on poor people of color?” [6] Lo draws on a range of tactics to probe these urgent questions and offer potential strategic solutions:

connect policy to built environment
connect built environment to people …

connect jails to enforcement
connect enforcement to legislation

connect this web to something [7]

While the Bush-Markey-Duckworth legislation was drafted very recently, it signals a promising shift in environmental thinking and policy-making. By forging connections between environmental racism and police violence, the Environmental Justice Mapping and Data Collection Act engages a counter-mapping function, as well. As Morris and Voyce note, counter-maps move beyond 2-dimensional abstraction to “disturb common representational conventions of shared environments” in order “to propose new ways to navigate the precarities of the present.” [8] Such navigational tools will be necessary if we are to meet the demands of a just transition away petroleum dependency and its matrix of oppressive relations. To execute such a transition, racial capitalism and environmental endangerment must be brought into alignment with an abolitionist horizon that serves both people and the planet. Lo is attuned to these connections, and captures their accompanying exigencies as follows:

 new maps
 new plans
 new ways of thinking
 new orleans [9]

The first three lines stack on top of, layer over, even submerge ‘new orleans,’ a city which in its very name monumentalizes settler-colonial ambition and the genocidal quest for all things new: lands, resources, commerce, and, most abominably, people. Seeking to undo these oppressive logics, Lo recodes the “new” to call forth maps and tools of renewal, including those of thought itself. [10]

Returning to this past November—it was amidst Covid-19 pandemic life, and the state’s flagrant negligence in providing basic social protections that my patience with ‘climate grief’ gave out. How obscene, I thought: that stultifying, closed-circuit imaginary felt both premature and woefully inadequate to the challenges posed by our ‘unprecedented’ times. Strategic concerns aside, it seemed far from incidental that those most interested in the diagnostic register of climate grief tend to inhabit positions of relative security. Moreover, there was an undeniable mismatch between those (most often individuals) with an investment in claiming a climate-related psychological impact or toll and those (communities) facing material exposure to environmental peril (climatological or otherwise). As with Covid-19, many on the frontlines of climate change are those for whom everyday threats to survival are absolutely with precedent. Yet, while BIPOC communities tend to experience the first and worst of impacts of ecological crisis and environmental injustices alike, those working on the ground in the struggle for environmental justice often resist enclosure in the noxious climate grief idiom and others like it—‘eco-anxiety’ and ‘pre-traumatic stress’ among them.

Environmental health scientist Dr. Sacoby Wilson describes this distinction as follows: “There’s a lot of doom and gloom when it comes to the end of the world with climate change, and that doom and gloom doesn’t work in the communities I work in. They’re already dealing with doom and gloom. They’re already dealing with survival mode in many cases when it comes to the pollution, [and other] hazards that they’re experiencing.” [11] Wilson is the founding director of the Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health (CEEJH) Laboratory at the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health and his commentary on the inefficacy of ‘doom and gloom’ thinking offers a helpful touchstone for assessing the place (or non-place) of abstractions like ‘climate grief.’

Who, if anyone, ought to grieve our imperiled planet? And perhaps more to the point, what function might such grief serve, given that the planet is without a doubt spectacularly, rebelliously alive? It is hardly obvious that grief for the ‘planet’ is even an appropriate response when innumerable human lives are being devastated by varying forms of ecological violence every day. Surely grieving our warming condition is putting the (climatological) cart before the (human) horse, particularly in the United States, a country that has yet to meaningfully mourn or reckon with “the twinned processes of dispossession and chattel slavery” upon which it was founded. [12] Such reckoning will require deep, sustained, material action toward environmental justice, and it must include a commitment to support Indigenous lives and restore Indigenous lands. Yet, as I type here today, both the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and Line 3 remain operational and set to commit further incursions on the lands of the Standing Rock Sioux and Anishinaabe peoples, only further corrupting the soil, water, and air upon which their lives and cultures depend.

As Nick Estes, citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, notes, we require nothing short of a Red Deal. Estes describes and distinguishes from the Green New Deal as follows: while “the Green New Deal can connect every struggle to climate change,” “a Red Deal can build on those connections, tying Indigenous liberation to the fight to save the planet.” He goes on to note that “this isn’t just an Indian problem. If every struggle were made into a climate struggle, then every struggle in North America must be made into a struggle for decolonization.” [13] Put another way, there will be neither climate justice without abolition, nor restoration of ecological equilibrium without decolonization.

With this antiracist, decolonial horizon in view, let’s think through this again: why all the grief? At best, it seems unhelpful to reserve space for grief in the struggle against a likely interminable crisis. In many ways, the scope of the crisis itself exceeds comprehension: the planet is changing; it has been changed, and a certain measure of additional warming is locked in by carbon already present in the atmosphere. While relative ecological equilibrium can, perhaps, be restored, that outcome need not be not assured for us to understand how imperative it is to jettison grief, when and wherever we can, in favor of modes of sensibility and response that energize and collectivize, that nourish even as they enjoin nourishing. Leaning into the depletive mode of climate grief individualizes what ought to be a common struggle toward a more just world. More insidiously, it is a non-reciprocal, extractive engagement, conveniently suited to the disastrous economic system of capital and its governing logic of dispossession that got us into this mess in the first place. A literal being made-heavy (as in ‘gravis’), climate grief is not something you have so much as it is something that has you, that bends you to (in-act) its will.

Beyond these troubling attributes, in the midst of this ongoing intensification of global ecological change, the climate grief idiom misses a fundamental truism of climate justice work. Wallace-Wells elaborates this as follows: “The fight is, definitely, not yet lost—in fact will never be lost, so long as we avoid extinction, because however warm the planet gets, it will always be the case that the decade that follows could contain more suffering or less.” [14] Solnit pursues a similar line of argumentation, explaining that although we may know that “the planet will heat up, [and] species will die out,” “how many, how hot, and what survives depends on whether we act.” [15] Building out from these insights, the value of an expanded understanding of climate action becomes clear: a future with less suffering depends, absolutely, on widespread, committed action based in tangible, everyday goals as well as larger, more radical collective projects.

When we set out with both modest and audacious goals in mind, we embrace the chancy, collective work of co-liberation. This kind of work is deeply sustaining and it can support us as we confront and tend to our own lived experiences, including those that do involve a measure of grief. Such an approach makes it possible to pursue the fundamentally ecological project of striving to equalize environmental risks and rewards, and it’s also a way of forming alliances that insist not me, us (that refrain which so dominated Bernie Sanders’ recent bid for president). Such alliances can emerge from simple questions about the material ecologies that prop up and structure the resource-intensive systems within which we live. Where does our energy come from and where do our trash, food waste, and recycling go? Do alternatives exist, and if so, how can we support and amplify calls from environmental justice communities and organizations to secure those alternatives? Which lands and peoples are bearing the costs associated with the resources that feed our bodies and fuel our lifestyles (water; food; fracked natural gas; petroleum products)? To become accountable to those experiencing the first and worst effects of our ecological predicament, we must gain basic literacy around the very ‘stuff’ (and temperatures!) of our everyday lives. Through this process, we are likely to discover that in many cases, “local scars cover for global perpetrators,” [16] and while that may be a grievable fact, it’s also a fact that should incense and mobilize us to dismantle systems of extraction and exploitation at home, building in their place more regeneration-ready worlds. Lucas de Lima frames the perceptual challenge as follows: "Remember the declaration of Estamira Gomes de Sousa, a landfill dweller in Rio de Janeiro: 'I am the edge of the world. I am everywhere.'" [17] Under the oppressive regime of global capital, environmental injustice here is environmental injustice elsewhere. Through declaring allegiance to lives under threat, whether near or far, we shake free from the heft of grief and reach toward Estamira, who must be remembered.

Stuart Hall once wrote, “I began not as somebody formed but as somebody troubled.” [18] It is hardly surprising that it was Hall who coined the term ‘Thatcherism,’ foreseeing all too clearly the violent subordination of social well-being that would come to characterize life under neoliberalism. It is in this context of market growth imperatives and rapacious accumulation by dispossession that it became possible to speak into the void of grief for abstracted changes in our planetary system, yet such a grief is without ritual. Its spasmodic stranglehold serves only to evacuate hope, and quarantine those individuals it afflicts, insisting, strenuously, that there is no society, that there is no future for organized life on earth. [19]

From front-and-fenceline communities to environmental activists and allies, many in the climate struggle begin from a place of trouble. Troubled emplacement assumes vastly varying forms, yet, pivoting to poet C.S. Giscombe—“Where else is there to be, especially if you’re honest.” This assertion appears in “Fugitive,” a powerfully sprawling essay that situates the 1960s television program The Fugitive in relation to, among other things, the prominent positioning of certain critical theorists in the academic seminar space: “Smart boys and girls,” he says, “but stiff, stiff, stiff.” Channeling Martha Reed, Giscombe goes on to note that “Nobody I read much wanted to run down to the rocks to hide his or her face”—“Without that desire—the intimation of being in trouble—there’s no way the rocks can rejoin, No hiding place.” [20] Certainly, the admission of climate-specific troubles into critical discourses in academic and professional spaces seems to mark an important shift toward acknowledging the climate crisis itself and its psychological effects. At the same time, ‘climate grief’ can easily take on centripetal force, transitioning into a gnawing gyre, the inwardness of which threatens to close off, separate out, and even sink those who would grieve, leaving no way for the ‘rocks to rejoin’—exposing no path to solidarity.

While brief moments of climate emotion are inevitable, climate grief itself is a siren song, and I would entreat someone experiencing its intensities (or vorticities, really) to try and build habits around repossessing and rededicating that precious, living energy toward more organized, social forms of response. As long-suffering Charlie Brown, patron saint of ‘Good grief,’ knows all too well, even good grief [21] is but a statement of separability, a denunciation of connection: it’s something that’s blurted in a moment of vexation (whether at you or by you, at yourself) to assure the work of detachment, to insist that all relations are, ultimately, severable. [22] On the other hand, a deep and embodied sense of mutual incompletion offers a sure (if generatively uneven and unpredictable) path toward fortifying convictions and illuminating more livable horizons at the boundaries of our extractive, capitalist world. [23] Such a sense of incompletion is vital to the work of solidarity and it can push each of us to simply show up, for ourselves, and for each other. Given the pervasive orientation toward strictly individual endeavor in the 21st century, this sort of ‘showing up’ is as difficult as it is urgent. As Mark Nowak notes, because “Solidarity is one of the most dangerous words to capitalism,” everywhere we look, “the forces, institutions, and agents of capitalism are attempting to quell it, mute it, drown it, suffocate it, snuff it out.” Under such conditions, “Being together, evenly and independently and collectively, all at the same time, is one of the most radical human acts.” [24]

The opening epigraph to this essay is drawn from Muriel Rukeyser, known to Adrienne Rich as “that great poet of inseparables.” [25] Though I am poet, poetry has not been my primary subject this time around, and so I have tried instead to gather together what Rukeyser might describe as usable facts[26] facts which might help carry us toward less violent and unequal futures. In so doing, I take as a given that the work of historical exposition and that of climate action and organizing for social justice more broadly are at joint purposes. Usable facts are everywhere: they populate podcasts and articles (whether scientific or popular), poems, films and more. [27] Usable facts also live in the hearts, minds, and personal histories of struggle borne by our comrades, and they are embedded in a broad range of organizations dedicated to navigating our planetary predicament. ‘Climate grief’ could all too easily become our ‘free love’ moment, and we simply cannot let that happen. As any good student of counterculture will tell you, the barbed future that descended in its wake was anything but free, everything but loving. [28]

It is absolutely the case that the ecological crises of today require animation and caretaking of emotions that uplift, collectivize, and enlist—even in the face of grief. This entails both sending and receiving invitations: to study; to scrutinize; to counter-map; to act. Co-liberation depends upon these forms of committed, reciprocal engagement. As Sunriser Varshini Prakash has said, “Kids these days are lit and ready to go.” [29] So let them go, sure, but go along with them, too, not in grief, but in ecstasy (from ‘ekstasis, that bliss of ‘standing outside oneself’). We need to stand outside ourselves and fight, in and for that ‘outside,’ together, on whichever climate frontlines we can, because after all, they are legion now.

Knar Gavin (they; she) is a teacher, plant parent, bike nerd, and ecosocialist. They are currently working on a dissertation about ecopoetry at U Penn and their chapbook Vela. is available through the Operating System. Forthcoming poems can be found in West Branch and Perpetual Doom. For intermittent tumbles, head to knargavin.tumblr.com.