Perhaps I am drawn to death because I learned how to walk at a graveyard. There is a picture of me, waddling happily between gravestones, bright blue onesie, pink shoes, my first pair. As a one-and-a-half year old I was still quite tied to what was below me. I knew the taste of dirt in my mouth, from falling a million times and more. And I was barely as tall as the gravestones. Also, not long ago in human history, I might not have lived past my second birthday.
There is a poem, “Miscegenation” by Natasha Trethewey, and in it the speaker quotes her father: When I turned 33 my father said, It’s your Jesus year—you’re the same / age he was when he died. I too turn 33 in a few days, and the line of this poem has been following me around ever since reading it. I don’t count myself among believers of Christian faith, but having grown up in the rituals and traditions of Christianity has been formative regardless, I assume. I am the same age now as he was when Jesus died, and this thought is somehow moving.
From an early age on, death has fascinated and troubled me, and I felt the need to further investigate. From the first funeral I ever attended, age six – it was our neighbour’s and I remember huge bouquets of white roses – I wondered what this was all about, already deeply distrusting the concept of afterlife. After all, why should we invest in life on Earth only for the purpose of having an even better life in this other, unknown place? I might not have phrased it this way, but I certainly felt that the story was lacking.
“Called back”, but where was that?
There was a time when I was obsessed with people’s tales of near-death experiences, and another time, far too early, when I tried reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I once flicked through a biography of Emily Dickinson and delighted in the fact that the inscription of her gravestone was a sole two words: „Called Back“. Can it get any better? I thought. But also, what did it mean exactly, to be called back? Where was back, and how did she know how to get there?
Now, many years later, the experience of grappling with grief and anxiety in the wake of ecological losses and mass extinction has added another, less idle layer to my lifelong meditation on death and dying. Against the backdrop of the severity of our current predicament, some days it is challenging not to loose heart altogether and think we’re screwed. And dwelling in the doom and gloom has its own morbid temptations. To put it in the words of an elegant and articulate psychoanalyst, age 75: “What the fuck have we done to this world?“ (imagine a thick Scottish accent).
The information on what the fuck we have done is out there and most people are well informed. We have all the data, all the predictions, we know we are moving towards a four to six degree hotter world, and we have all the models how this will affect every single one of us (It is important to note that the climate crisis is a crisis of social justice too, meaning that people on the margins, First Nations, people in the Global South, and communities of colour everywhere, are more severely affected). Yet being aware of the severity of this crisis has not proven to bring about sufficient change, neither on a personal, societal nor political level. This is why some climate scientists become severely depressed or emotionally dissociate from the data they produce all together; why there are Climate Cafés, Active Hope reading circles and peer-to-peer groups like the Good Grief Network, popping up everywhere. This is why students opt out of environmental majors, not able to handle the distress (this is a story from Sarah Jaquette Ray’s book Field Guide to Climate Anyiety), and why Greta Thunberg says she wants everyone to panic (I want to add that panic is closer to the flight or freeze reaction and not prone to get us into fight mode. In panic mode you can hardly think). And this is why, in extreme cases, people take their own lives to protest our collective denial.
Cognitive biases shape our perception of everything, including the climate crisis
We think of ourselves as rational creatures, but we are not. We are extremely biased in our perception of what we construct as reality, which is basically a mix of assumptions, stories we tell ourselves, sensory information, experiences, instincts and cognitive biases. We call this wild combination reality, and it is quite limited. For instance, we can’t know what we don’t know. And if we never become aware of all the biases that play into the way we think, we are held captive by our own limited illusions. One of the many biases each and every one of us falls prey to is the so-called confirmation bias, meaning that we listen and integrate information into our own concept of the world that confirms our preconceptions. Confirmation bias is like our internal hellish Facebook algorithm, like our Spotify Weekly Playlist, only ever perpetuating what we already confirmed we like (see an informative list of 20 cognitive biases that unknowingly form and determine our perception).
Coming back to the ecological crisis and taking into account that most people are on some level aware of the situation we’re in, particularly those in power, must we then assume that we are in a stage of collective denial of the state of affairs? This has been termed the ostrich effect and is one of several cognitive biases. Collective burying ones head in the sand, like ostriches delight in doing, means ignoring a negative or dangerous situation by agreeing not to speak of it. Turning our current predicament into a tabu might just be the most powerful way to shut up conversations from which change could potentially spring (Stoknes 2015 has written on cognitive biases in the climate crisis).
Of course, another way to study the denial of life-threatening situations is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief, denial being the first one, followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This too is a quite useful frame to guide ones thinking.
None of the people I know are burning their passports and running to the hills
Over the last year I have been talking and listening to people from all walks of life and from all over the world (although the majority of them lived in Western countries): full-time activists, scientists, artists, therapists, filmmakers, rangers and ornithologists, among many others. All of them virtually meet each other for the reason to talk about their climate emotions. Let me assure you that these people are neither doomers nor preppers. None of them, as far as I know, run to the hills and prepare for the apocalypse by learning to produce their own aspirin. None of the people I regularly meet are conspiracy theorists, believing that Bill Gates makes the weather, or whatever other sad believes people buy into.
But all of them are deeply worried and feel that they have no one to talk to about their feelings of distress regarding the ecological crisis; no one in their family, no one among their friends. We know from trauma research that lacking the possibility to talk about ones experiences only worsens the trauma.
Denying climate emotions is dangerous
Emotions are much more powerful than facts. If facts moved us into changing behaviours, then by now we would all be activists, fighting literally for our own survival. Also, no one would be smoking. On the contrary, emotions affect and move us, for better and worse. But to change drastically and fundamentally as a society, we need an open conversation about climate emotions too. Because as of right now these conversations happen mostly behind closed doors of zoom groups (although more and more studies and newspaper reports here and there pick up the issue). Tabuing climate emotions (like we did until very recently with depression) is a very dangerous form of a collective ostrich behaviour, both for our personal wellbeing and for life on Earth.
What does all this have to do with death? In a way I see this collective denial of our situation – unprecedented times in history with climate disruption, more diseases, collapses of biodiversity, food and water scarcity, mass migration and potential wars in the decades to come – I see all this mirrored in our denial of our own mortality. Facing our own death is a potent reminder for questioning literally everything in life. It is deeply unsettling and likely the reason why there are a lot of sentimental visions of the sacred in this world. Although many faith based traditions and religions embrace impertinence, just as many will happily sell you a magic potion of beautiful afterlives and paradises. I wonder how humankind’s trajectory would have been different, had Christianity, Islam and Judaism not invented the idea of the afterlife. What if world religions all along had promoted life on Earth as the paradise people dreamed of in order to escape their worldly misery?
“Only then (nearly out the door, so to speak) did I realize how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure, and saw that I was on the brink of squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing.” ― George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
There is no comeback from having a serious conversation with death, only three questions to grapple with: Who do you want to be? What did you come here to do? And what is a life well spent? These questions are ever more relevant when we move them away from the strictly personal. The flip-side of these questions is undeniable: to fall into a rabbit hole of nothing really matters anyway.
Capitalism does not like grief and mourning
But I believe these questions also hold the potential for structural change. Capitalism despises death, grief and morning. Someone in mourning is a lost customer, a person dying is a nightmare of a consumer. And a third one, fundamentally questioning their current course in life, might not be in the best shopping mood either.
To contemplate my own mortality and the mortality of all for me is a two-fold invitation: it invites me to learn how to die and how to live with as much gusto, love and gratitude as possible. Really squeezing out all the love and beauty you can give and receive, while doing as little harm as possible. This concept falls well within Immanuel Kant’s idea of performing acts of beauty.
The German philosopher is not really known for indulging in the beauty of life. Among all the philosophers he is the raised index finger of must and ought and shan’t. Surprisingly, his thoughts on moral acts versus beautiful acts are quite life-affirming and can teach us valuable lessons. Norwegian eco-philosopher Arne Naess was the first to apply Kant’s distinction to people’s motivation in acting to protect life on Earth. Looking at the ecological crisis we could say that data and facts are very much tied to moral acts. They call to our duty and speak in moral imperatives. Precisely this language has proven to be insufficient. Environmental activism and system’s change, in order to be efficient and sustainable, must stem not from a realm of duty but from inclination. “You perform the act simply because you are inclined to act like that, or at least partly because you have the inclination. It ‘feels natural’ to do it. In that case Kant calls the act beautiful” (Naess 1993). Beautiful acts then derive from an emotional attachment, they are a labour of love, an act of care. Against the backdrop of the concept of beautiful acts, how would we answer the questions: What did I come here to do? Who do I want to be? And what is a human life well spent?