Something unimaginably horrific is taking place across Australia at this moment. It is impossible to avoid the terrible news of the unstoppable fires sweeping across the country, too big to be controlled, too big to be stopped.
People have died; many more have lost their homes. Important ecosystems have been destroyed, and millions and millions of animals have been killed. It has been estimated that this fire season will kill around 1 billion animals. That estimate is creeping up all the time – I’ve heard it may be as many as 1.25 billion.
How can we even begin to imagine that number, that much suffering and pain and fear? The mind doesn’t seem able to stretch far enough to imagine something so huge. How can we take it in?
Those who are directly affected by these fires are suffering greatly at the moment, with ongoing trauma, raw grief at the loss of loved ones, homes, livelihoods, communities, ways of life, as well as the animals and the trees. Fear for their futures – when will it happen again? This is going to take a lot to recover from, for Australia as a country.
For those of us watching from afar, who are not dealing with the immediate impacts of it, we are still very much affected; there is something particularly horrific about the scale of loss of wildlife and ecosystems here, that is hitting home more deeply than anything has before. I know I’m not alone in feeling this – many of us across the world are feeling the same way. It feels like as a planet we have suffered a deep wound with this loss. We may not be grieving a personal loss, but we are grieving a collective one. And the knowledge that humanity has caused this great harm to so many other species is very hard to bear.
One element of the tragedy of it is that what we are seeing now in Australia has been predicted for years. We’ve known where we were heading, and we haven’t managed to take enough steps to avoid our fate. And the most frightening fact is that this is only the beginning. This is climate breakdown in action; it has started, but what will come next?
It was Cassandra in Ancient Greek mythology, who always struck me as the most tragic figure of all. She was gifted with the ability to know the future but cursed never to be believed. I can’t avoid making the comparison with many in today’s world – many of us have been shouting increasingly loudly for years, for decades. But the truth, the science, hasn’t been believed or attended to; at least not by those with the power to take action to save us.
And how should we be responding to this? How can we adequately respond to death and suffering on such a scale? It is almost too hard to look at, but I think we must look at it. We must look at the terrible images of burned and injured or dead animals that are coming out now. We must allow ourselves to open up to feeling the magnitude of this catastrophe. If we block this out or forget that it is unprecedented in its awfulness, then it will become normalised – and that must not happen.
This is unbearable and we owe it to those creatures who lived and died to recognise that it has happened. Anger is an appropriate response; rage and fury, frustration and despair.
Sorrow and sadness are what many of us are feeling; let us weep together. I have read that it is likely that some species have been totally destroyed by this fire; a sudden wiping out of existence. More extinctions; and again, our fault. How can we bear the shame and guilt of this? That is also something to weep for. How could we do this to the other creatures that we share the planet with? What right do we have to destroy everyone’s world? It is sickening; how could we knowingly head down this path and not manage to stop ourselves in time? What have we done?
The Kangaroo Island Dunnart, a tiny population of endangered mouse-like marsupials, is feared lost after fire swept through its entire known habitat range in a couple of days.
The survival of the endangered Glossy Black Cockatoo is also in doubt as its entire habitat has been destroyed on Kangaroo Island.
Koalas were also in trouble before these terrible fires; their populations have fallen by almost a half since 1990. They are now an endangered species, at risk of extinction.
It is terrifying – watching the dreadful images and hearing stories about the millions of people breathing toxic air. What have we done to our home and our future? What legacy are we leaving to the next generation? If you aren’t terrified by this, then you probably have your head in the sand. Fear is a very reasonable thing to be feeling right now.
How do we cope with all of this, these emotions demanding to be felt?
Let’s feel our grief, let’s speak of it and cry together, support each other’s pain, and recognise the magnitude of our own.
We can do the following: take in the individual stories of tragedy, of heroism, of loss and pain and despair and fear. We can read the stories and view the images and feel the loss, alongside those who are there. Let us feel all of it; let us not drown it out with business as usual, with entertainment, distraction, life as usual.
We can do what we can to let our fellow humans in Australia know that they are not alone, that we are watching and caring and grieving with them. And we can do what we can to help in practical ways; there are now so many appeals to donate money to, if we can spare anything.
And then let us direct our fear and our anger into protest; let’s stand up and say, ‘we refuse to tolerate this; this must be prevented from happening again.’ This is climate breakdown in action, and we must do all we can to prevent it from getting worse.
We must keep shouting, and protesting, and trying everything possible to get those in power to take action. We do have power as individuals, when we gather collectively and refuse to be ignored. Life these days is not ‘business as usual’, so we must stop pretending that the old rules apply. The rules have changed, so we need to change.
If we do not manage to get real change accomplished now, this will surely happen again. It will get worse and more will be lost, until there is nothing left.
Finally, we honour those who are lost; the people who lost their lives, the cows and the sheep and the horses and the pigs and the dogs and the cats and the koalas and the kangaroos and the birds and the small mammals and the rodents and the marsupials and the reptiles and the insects and the trees and the plants. So many gone, so much pain and so much fear. Our hearts are broken for you all. The whole world is watching and the world weeps with you.
The first name you were given by us was Mātuhituhi.
Did you know that? In those days, we coexisted quite happily.
Later, we called you Bush Wren.
We wanted to classify you, so we decided that you belonged in
the genus of New Zealand wrens, Xenicus.
We gave you another name, Xenicus Longipes, ‘the long-footed
We discovered you. We named you. We categorised you.
You used to live in the forest; you didn’t really fly very well, but that didn’t matter. You were safe in the forest and could move around easily with your long feet. You were so little: only 9cm long and weighing just 16g.
You built your nests on the ground, which used to be perfectly safe; that was how you’d always done it.
You lived in what is now New Zealand, perhaps for hundreds, thousands of years before we came to your home.
Then we brought predators, deliberately and accidentally, who gradually took over. It wasn’t that long before there were only a few of you left, and then just one. And then no more.
It didn’t take very long for us to destroy you, without really noticing. Less than 100 years before you were all gone. No more births and no more deaths.
We killed you. We tried to save you. We failed you.
We tried to stop it, but it was too late. We tried to find a way to keep you alive, but it didn’t work. We lost you.
You were unique and you were sacred. We are diminished by
We had no right to do this to you. You did not deserve this.
I am sorry.
I remember you. Even though you and I were never on this Earth at the same time. You are significant to me and I will not forget your names. I will not forget what you look like.
How do we even begin to grieve these losses, these extinctions? How do we grieve the enormity of the breakdown of our climate?
Is it not appropriate to feel these emotions (grief, anger, desolation, hopelessness, guilt, fear, frustration, anxiety, depression, emptiness, and denial), given what we know about what is happening, and given the threats to our very existence? As Jiddu Krishnamurti famously said, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” (Charles Eisenstein talks about this very thing here https://charleseisenstein.org/video/it-is-no-measure-of-health-to-be-well-adjusted-to-a-profoundly-sick-society/.) My view is that these feelings shouldn’t be avoided but need to be talked about openly, as a step on the path to fixing the mess we have created, i.e. changing our sick society into one which works in harmony with the natural world, rather than in an exploitative way. Grieving and expressing our anger and our sorrow and our rage will help us to connect to ourselves and each other, and will make it easier to move through these paralysing feelings and into action.
How do we reconcile the guilt we feel over humanity’s role
in this destruction? Can we ever forgive ourselves?
How do we live with this existential fear of our own
extinction hanging over us? How do we cope with our fear for ourselves and for
the next generations?
One way to start is by remembering those that have been lost; by honouring them and trying to ensure that their existence was not meaningless. There is a sacred duty of remembrance that we bear, I believe. We must remember all that have been lost, even though only a small proportion were actually known to us by name. We must remember them all.
I’ve always liked the idea of the ‘tomb of the unknown soldier’ – a feeling that it was somehow overwhelmingly important to remember those who were lost beyond our ability to name them. The idea of this came out of the horrors of the First World War, when so many died that some soldiers were buried without their names being known. This unknowing remembrance has become a sacred duty in so many countries, and the tomb of the unknown soldier is still honoured today.
In just this way, I believe we have a sacred duty to remember those creatures and plants who have existed and then ceased to exist without ever being known. There have been so many of them.
In the same way, I also believe we have a duty to remember all humans who have died unmourned and unremembered. It is the same sacred duty of remembrance.
Joanna Macy says, “We are capable of suffering with our world, and that is the true meaning of compassion. It enables us to recognize our profound interconnectedness with all beings. Don’t ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal. That is what is happening as we see people honestly confronting the sorrows of our time.”
We are in a unique position as human beings: to be alive
right now, at this precise point in the earth’s history. Never before have we
knowingly faced the possibility of our own extinction, and never have we known
that we have brought this situation on ourselves. Human actions have caused
climate breakdown and biodiversity loss.
Not only that, but, knowing that our actions were leading to
the destruction of our world, we have continued, even accelerated, down the
same path through ignorance, avoidance, denial, greed, or short-term gain. Our
powerlessness to halt our own destructive stupidity should be the trademark of
our species, rather than our intelligence.
Is it any wonder that these realisations are causing us to
recognise a new kind of affliction which is facing so many of us? Feelings of
grief, anger, desolation, hopelessness, guilt, fear, frustration, anxiety,
depression, emptiness, and denial are rife in the world today. It may well be
that our existential concerns about Earth and humanity’s future are what are
underlying the mental health epidemic which is facing Western society today. This
‘climate grief’ is a newly recognised phenomenon, but one which is increasingly
being talked about and taken seriously.
And it isn’t just our own future destruction that we are grieving. We have created a situation in which we are facing a massive extinction on this planet, through loss of habitats, the introduction of invasive species, and climate disruption. We are losing so many species, the most since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and we know that we are causing this mass extinction phase ourselves. Currently we are losing around 200 species every day (1,000 times the ‘natural’ rate), and are facing a potential loss of 50% of all species on the planet within the next 30 years. According to the IUCN, more than 27,000 species are threatened with extinction; and that is just the species we know about.
We are causing the loss of well-known animals such as rhinos
and tigers and polar bears, as well as those we have never had the chance to
see, or to name. Many have been destroyed before we had the chance to see them.
Not just animals, but plants and trees and other organisms. They are
disappearing forever, these unique beings who are the final results of millions
of years of evolution. Gone. Because of us. They are impossible to replace and
our ecosystem, what survives of it, will be immensely poorer for their loss.
Every creature had a place in this system, and the system is diminished without
This kind of grief is almost the opposite of a death loss.
This is the absence of a birth, any birth, ever again. It is almost
unimaginably vast, as a loss.
As Joanna Macy says, “This is a dark time, filled with suffering and uncertainty. Like living cells in a larger body, it is natural that we feel the trauma of our world. So don’t be afraid of the anguish you feel, or the anger or fear, because these responses arise from the depth of your caring and the truth of your interconnectedness with all beings.”