Anyone who learns a bit about the history of the land begins to be haunted by such visions: the vanishing prairie, the felled old-growth forests, the extinct species. A new collection edited by Hannah Malcolm, Words for a Dying World: Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church, considers these visions and the emotions attendant upon them. Words for a Dying World is an eclectic volume, encompassing personal essays, poetry, and academic prose. Contributors write from a variety of professional backgrounds (professors, clergy, activists, scientists, artists) and geographic contexts (the UK, India, New Zealand, Canada, Ecuador, Namibia, the US, Finland). Theological perspectives are varied as well, although most cohere in the range of what we would term the “mainline” here in the US, with a decided emphasis on Malcolm’s own tradition in the Anglican Communion.

As with any edited collection, not every piece in this volume impressed me equally. However, there are in Words for a Dying World many valuable explorations of concerns that anyone who feels a sense of ecological responsibility will feel. Kyle B. T. Lambelet’s essay “My Grandmother’s Oil Well” helpfully explores complicity and how to negotiate a sense that one is profiting from the destruction of the earth (such as by owning part of an Oklahoma oil well); Christopher Douglas-Huriwai’s “Ko Au te Whenua, Ko te Whenua Ko Au: I am the Land and the Land is Me” articulates a compelling theology of the land drawing on traditional Maori thought; Caleb Gordon, in “The Edge of the World,” describes the sometimes inconsistent ways in which we set boundaries on the damage we do to the land.

Malcolm’s chosen term for the emotions I have been describing is “climate grief.” I should confess that I’m wary of the term. Much as Wendell Berry has criticized amorphous concern with “the environment” as insufficiently tethered to concern for real places, I’m disinclined to focus my advocacy on something as large as the climate when there are so many particular places (the tallgrass prairie) to protect. As Berry argues in “Think Little,” if the environmental movement deals only in big, sweeping ideas about global change, it will be too easily subsumed under the heading of a fad. In contrast, the person who is willing to “think little” and thus to involve herself personally with the issue—by even an act as small as planting a garden—will have a personal, private involvement with the land that will better sustain a lifetime of advocacy. As Berry argues, “the environmental crisis has its roots in our lives. By the same token, environmental health will also be rooted in our lives.” This is not an argument for quietism or mere personal responsibility, as if we can each individually save the world in our own backyards. It is simply an appeal for advocates to have some skin in the game, to attend to their subject with care and precision and fidelity to the particular.

Thinking big about the environmental crisis too often produces messages that enact a bleak histrionics about impending doom.

Fortunately, Malcolm ably counters my concerns about thinking big and little in her introduction, which lays out an understanding of climate grief that is less about a vague sense of impending doom and more about a constructive dialectic of lament and hope, played out in our particular places. She insists that climate grief “is not about death in abstraction. We grieve the death of particular things, whether creatures or places, and, until we understand this, our relationship between others and ourselves, we will continue to flounder in slogans and simplifications.” An expression of climate grief “takes on the shape of the places and creatures to whom we intimately belong.” Accordingly, Words for a Dying World centers around personal works written from particular places—Centralia, Oklahoma; New South Wales, Australia; Manchester, England; West Timor, Indonesia. As such, the thinking in this collection tends toward the little, toward personal accountability and involvement.

Thinking big about the environmental crisis too often produces messages that enact a bleak histrionics about impending doom—by obsessing over problems on a scale that we cannot meaningfully affect, we can too readily tend towards helplessness and rage. I gravitate toward more constructive forms of advocacy, whether that’s the culture-building, back-to-the-land work of Berry and the institutions he has fostered, or the technological solutions (carbon capture, clean energy) advocated by thinkers like Matt Frost. In contrast to these active approaches—which think little by getting practically involved in local action—a stress on climate grief could be seen as driving one towards a form of advocacy centered on performance of emotion, with ultimately counterproductive results.

Here too, Malcolm heads off the least productive possibilities for climate grief. Her introduction marks ways in which advocacy can go wrong if we “romanticize the non-human (‘we need to learn from Mother Nature’), flatten the obvious differences between humans and other creatures in order to emphasize similarities (‘we are nature defending itself’), or demonize all human activity (‘humans are the virus’).” She notes, perceptively, the ways that even expressions of grief can be misused, if they are merely “wielded as power.” And, most importantly, she turns in her conclusion toward resurrection hope: “Survival, compassion, honesty. These are all good reasons to grieve. But the conviction that Christ’s resurrection marked the death of death also contains the hope that our works of love in the present are not consigned to destruction.” Exploring our grief at the destruction of place and ecology thus becomes a foundation for that love which never ends.

As such, the experience of climate grief is a participation “in God’s orientation towards the earth—the One who takes on flesh to dwell among flesh, in time and space, and tastes death.” Malcolm here articulates a response to ecological devastation that is far from the abstract pursuit of big ideas; it is rather a kind of thinking little with the One who, in his self-emptying incarnation, in his taking on of our grief, thought littler than we can conceive.

Words for a Dying World: Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church was published by SCM Press on December 7, 2020. You can purchase a copy on their website here.

 

Words for a Dying World

 


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