#4: Refusing melancholia
Choosing grieving together, imagination, hope and action over moping around
Vividly imagining a more beautiful future in your mind is a potent tool to keep motivated in taking action.
However, it’s important to not sugar-coat the pain of the present.
Community is key, both for support in grieving the destruction of nature, as well as for imagining and creating a better future.
I have a confession: I love me some depressing music. There’s something about its sweet, sticky sadness that feels painfully good somewhere deep in the fiber of my being.
The past few years, I’ve been consuming depressing music on environmental themes. Here’s an example (from the song Lampshades on Fire by Modest Mouse):
We're the human race
We're going to party at this place
And then move on…
Pack up again, head to the next place
Where we'll make the same mistakes
Burn it up or just chop it down
This one's done so where to now?
Our ass looks great inside these jeans
Well, we want just our water clean…
Well, the air's on fire so we're moving on
Better find another one cause this one's done
Waiting for the magic of the scientist's glove
To push, push, push, push, pull us up
Spend some time, floating in outer space
Find another planet, make the same mistakes…
The attitude in this song is one of misanthropy: humans are a narcissistic species. We just want to party, look hot in our jeans. We don’t care about anyone or anything save ourselves. We trash one planet and go looking for another. That’s just who we are.
But is this true?
Let’s say, for a minute, that it is. What would be the best response?
In the climate circle, someone shared this quote:
It’s about refusing melancholia and insisting on mourning with others so as to find those ways of living well…without the fantasy that denies the wounding, that denies death, and denies our own complicity in it.
—Donna Haraway, For the Wild
The word “melancholia” struck me as the perfect description of a headspace I’ve been in for a long time with regard to the environment, a headspace of feeling chronically sad and hopeless.
I asked the group what “melancholia” meant to them, and got this response:
My gut take is that melancholia would be a kind of half-assed grieving that looks like moping around with some kind of “poor me” and / or “this sucks” energy
Mourning together feels alive with rawness and passion and intimacy and vulnerability
It’s like the cold, sterile vibe of a hospice ward vs. sending the body out to the sea on a raft and shooting a flaming arrow at it and watching it burn as it drifts away and then getting drunk and telling stories and singing songs
Make the old gods proud, ya know!?
Grief can be painful and scary, and we sometimes don’t have community to support us. To avoid the intense pain of grief, we can sometimes choose to wallow in a low-level depression, a melancholia. I’ve certainly been there and done that.
Or we can bypass grief entirely and jump right to “the bright side”, a dishonest sugar-coating:
This quote gives a good description of sugar coating a.k.a. “toxic positivity”:
The great enemy of grief is hope. Hope is the four-letter word for people who are unwilling to know things for what they are…Grief is required to proceed.
If we start to hope before we grieve, we lose touch with reality. We are not authentically hopeful because we are using our hope to suppress our pain.
Imagination and hope
But after we’ve gotten in touch with the darkness, it’s OK, necessary even, to visit the world of light. The world of imagination and of that four-letter word: hope.
As opposed to moping around and repeating the mantra that humans are a “cancer on the planet”, it would be more helpful to tell a different story about what the human race is and could be.
The stories we tell are powerful:
Every story moves us to think, feel and act differently in the world.
If all we tell are stories of despair (e.g. Lampshades on Fire) then inaction and despair will be more likely.
The writer John Green puts it best:
The problem with despair is that it isn’t very productive. Like a replicating virus, all despair makes is more of itself. If [despair]…made me a more committed advocate for justice or environmental protection, I’d be all for it.
And so, we need some stories of hope to inspire beneficial action. The film 2040 is one such story.
2040 gives us a vision of what would happen if humanity invested whole hog into green technologies that are available today. The title comes from envisioning the “best-case” future in 2040 for the filmmaker’s four-year-old daughter, Velvet.
2040 is the only environmentalist movie I’ve ever seen that’s funny. The humor comes from playful visual gags and special effects.
My top take-aways from the movie:
Doughnut economics is a perspective we all should adopt. The perspective that advertising gives us is: more is better. The perspective of donut economics is one of moderation: we need to live on the donut (where there is enough), not in the hole (where there isn’t enough), and not too far on the outside (where there is excessive consumption and overtaxing of our environment). Instead of thinking “more for me” we should be thinking “enough for us.”
“You can’t not be a hypocrite in today’s society, because everything is built on fossil fuels.” This is just a reality. We need to grieve this: acknowledge our complicity, but also acknowledge we did not choose to be born into capitalism, and not be paralyzed by guilt.
It will be helpful to subsidize the salaries of employees in the fossil fuel industry as they transition to other jobs. Fossil fuel employees are people too, and subsidizing job transitions would lessen the incentive to preserve the status quo.
Marine permaculture is a cool technology that could remove CO2 from the atmosphere and increase biodiversity:
Microgrids are a useful technology for helping communities in developing countries generate their own electricity sustainably.
Refusing Environmental Melancholia
Grief and hope are not antithetical to each other, though they might seem so at first. They are each useful places to visit and experience.
Grief is cathartic and inspires connection.
Imagination and hope are energizing and allow for the creation of a more beautiful future, a future that we actually want.
Melancholia, on the other hand, has none of these benefits. For me it’s a sticky swamp that is perversely pleasant, but is ultimately a trap.
I’m grateful to the climate circle for solidarity in processing grief. And I’m grateful to 2040 for stoking my imagination in the direction of hope (I’m also reading a good book on this theme, called From What is to What if?).
I pray that we can trade our melancholia in for whole-hog wailing together at the state of the world, and whole-hog envisioning and co-creating a more beautiful future (in 2040, and beyond).
Whatever the problem, community is the answer.
P.S. I still really like Lampshades on Fire. But sometimes the things we like aren’t good for us :)