How we can respond to the ecological crisis while trapped in a culture and infrastructure of denial? A reflection on the The Magnitude of All Things, Jennifer Abbott’s 2020 meditation on ecological grief. Published by The Dark Mountain Project October 2022 and adapted from the original essay in Borrowed Time: on death, dying and change (art.earth 2022).
The Second Question
I first came upon Canadian film-maker Jennifer Abbott’s 2020 study of ecological grief The Magnitude of All Things at an online screening co-hosted by Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, as they mobilised for a wave of civil resistance in the autumn of 2021. After the screening we broke out into small groups where we responded in turn to two questions. The first question was ‘How does all this make you feel?’; the second was ‘What are you willing to do about it?’.
My initial reaction to this second question was irritation. Surely it implied a cloth-eared take on the film’s central message? The Magnitude of All Things turns to the growing body of evidence that Earth’s present web of species – upon which all of our lives and everything of value to us radically depend – is rapidly and irreversibly dying. Or rather, is being killed. Magnitude addresses the dilemma of how we’re to meet this predicament without falling into despair.
My unspoken thought, then, as I chipped in what I was up for that autumn, was ‘What exactly do you mean, do about it?’
Six months on, with a good number of those who gathered for that online screening still passing through British courts and prisons, the youth-led Just Stop Oil coalition have picked up the baton, initiating a new wave of economic disruption in the name of a survivable future. And as I watch Just Stop Oil at work, I see that my response to this second question has changed. That change is what I’ve tried to take stock of here.
‘Entering a period of grief without end’
Magnitude begins with Abbott’s moment of eerie disorientation when she encounters falling white snow in the midst of a Canadian summer. She then realises it’s not snow at all, but ash from surrounding forest fires triggered by global heating. She tells us of the visceral shock this realisation triggered in her, her body recognising and remembering the feeling it evoked: her grief for her beloved sister Saille, who had recently died of cancer.
I’ve watched this film three times now, slowly pulling together a response to it. I’ve got a list of scribbled phrases beside me – words spoken by those Abbott meets with and listens to within the film – that help me to map what stuck throughout the months it’s taken me to reply to those activists’ second question.
Abbott’s navigation of ecological grief is principally achieved through the voices of others, as she seeks out and talks with people who find themselves at the front lines of an unfolding mass extinction. Each of her witnesses brings this unthinkable thing down to a human and a local scale: a First Nations land protector, the former president of a vanishing South Pacific island, a Sápara family living in the Amazon, a bereaved father and coral-reef ecologist, teenage activists from the Global South and from the Global North, others. Magnitude interweaves their testimonies with letters written by Saille during her final months, and with Abbott’s own reflections on sharing in her sister’s awakened, grace-filled dying.
The film is a more vulnerable, personal project than Abbott’s celebrated critiques of extractive capitalism with Mark Achbar and Joel Bakan – The Corporation in 2003, and co-released with The Magnitude of All Things in 2020, The New Corporation: the unfortunately necessary sequel. It’s also strikingly beautiful, especially the passages about Saille.
I talk about this later with a friend and Borrowed Time collaborator: too beautiful for her, she says. Saille’s deepening surrender to the real as death approaches, the renewed understanding of hope she imparts to her sister during those unhurried last months. As we grapple with our entanglement in the omnicidal entity that our culture has become, perhaps such a good death as Saille’s can only take us so far? Struggling to bring an approaching monster into focus, we might look to other modes of personal dying, maybe – all of them near at hand.
When we put out the invitation for art.earth’s Borrowed Time summit in 2020 we spoke of how personal testimony, art and poetry may bear witness to mass extinction, rendering it tangible in ways that graphs and statistics could not. The unforgettable power of Abbott’s film lies in exactly this – its witnessing of the unplanned process of change that she underwent through the people she met with and befriended in the course of making it. Not her exposure to ‘the facts’, but her encounters with particular people, with their particular love and grief for their dying home.
Borrowed Time’s intentions were thus so precisely addressed in The Magnitude of All Things that discovering the film in the final weeks before art.earth gathered for our symposium felt like a last-minute gift – even more so when Abbott accepted an invitation to join us for a keynote screening and interview.
‘How are we not doubled over in pain?’
In the film we observe a conversation between three women whose lives have been variously marked by loss: a mother’s death from cancer; a beloved family home destroyed by wildfire in the Australian bush, along with the entire surrounding forest and all its inhabitants. The scribbled phrases cluster around this conversation – too much / can’t fit it into my heart / a non-negotiable inescapable pain / how are we not doubled over in pain? One of the women speaks of how when death comes it gets behind everything like a wind – a wind that cannot be argued with, carrying all before it. We pick our lives up wherever it sets us down. Try to make sense of what happened.
When I interview Abbott for art.earth I tell her of the correspondence her film’s opening scene evoked in me. Numbness. That it struck me, as I listened to her, that ecological grief isn’t a place I’m able to visit at will. The bodily memory to which that ash returned her reminded me where else I’ve met this kind of persistent, involuntary dissociation. My father’s death. The adjusted reality that almost immediately took hold once his difficult dying was done: ‘going there’ was no longer an available choice. I tell Abbott how this strangely humiliating removal from what happened to my dad has likewise coloured my attitude to biospheric collapse, and to ‘climate denial’. That some level of denial in the face of this predicament now seems as inescapable, as innate to our animal bodies, as breathing. ‘Soft denial’, as I’ve more recently heard this said. Eliot wasn’t simply hectoring us in the poem Burnt Norton when he observed that humankind cannot bear very much reality.
Talking with Abbott I’m reminded of my friend Azul Thomé leading a three-day gathering in London to share some current responses to socioecological collapse. Azul told me later how she found herself looking on during one of these seminars, participants’ chairs drawn into a circle as we leaned gratefully into each other’s company, glad of new ways to see and to say this unthinkable thing. An atmosphere of relieved, animated reciprocity. If we really understood what we spoke of, Azul pondered, might we find ourselves not swapping recent reads but slumped onto the floor, holding each other as we wept?
I’m not weeping. Nor am I doubled over in pain. Like many I know, what I seem to have become is endlessly, frenetically busy – a restlessness that might be a kind of pain or a flight from pain or neither. What I can’t stop asking – and what I hear Abbott’s film answering – is how are we to meet this? Together. Two or three years from now, say, when stopping all this in its tracks – or even slowing its terminal acceleration – is no longer a script that will get us to our feet?
‘We live in a society that lacks honesty’
A month after our meeting with Abbott we come to our final Borrowed Time conversation. On 30th November, Remembrance Day for Lost Species, we’re about to join Climate Psychology Alliance researcher and child psychologist Caroline Hickman. As we prepare to welcome her we talk about the notion of the young now being offered help and support for their ‘ecological anxiety’ as a subtle form of gaslighting.
Hickman tells us about her work with children across several continents, burdened with the knowledge that they’re growing up into deepening chaos and unravelling – an unravelling of which their adults will often neither speak, nor allow them to speak. She offers us some figures from her recent research – stats which include the Philippines returning markedly higher levels of childhood climate despair than anywhere else she goes. What the young people she works with are presenting, she tells us, are classic symptoms of abuse.
Hickman offers child abuse not as an analogy for what’s happening to them, but as the most accurate name for it. What her young subjects’ replies bear witness to, she suggests, is systemic inter-generational abuse. Central to which, as with all abuse, is the silencing, invalidating and shaming of the abused.
XR’s Clare Farrell, interviewed for Magnitude, echoes George Monbiot’s observation that he’s witnessed a generation of his peers flip from wilful denial to out-and-out despair, skipping – as Monbiot puts it – that uneasy space in the middle where we might find ourselves held accountable to what we’re witnessing. The common ground of denial and despair: neither one requires us to change our lives. Farrell speaks of the wall of silent complicity around this out-sourced, invisibilised crisis – the wall which XR set out to tear down in 2018.
I talk about this with Abbott when she joins us at Borrowed Time. The pathological lying and pervasive violence of extractive capitalism is something she’s made a career of challenging: corporate and government greenwash, opaquely funded think-tanks, the manipulative agendas of the billionaire press. Inured as we are from the implications of runaway global heating – from what it means for others now, and for us in the near term – perhaps we in the minority world inhabit a more insidious lie than any of these? An all-pervasive dishonesty at work in the very fabric of the physical and cultural spaces we inhabit: the almost impossible challenge of resisting the spell of sleep embodied in our hyper-connected, brightly lit societies, our digitally mediated personal lives. Perhaps in focusing on high-relief instances of blatant criminality – the toxic 1% – we’re in danger of missing the size of the beast?
I spoke recently with a team hoping to seed a research project here in Cornwall to explore how different public spaces – a library, a local hospital, a supermarket café – might allow for different kinds of conversation about climate collapse. There’s surely a very real sense in which these spaces often make such conversations obscurely difficult. ‘Thick places’, we might call them, where the veil between us and the real has become all but impenetrable.
Can a university campus gaslight the young? A subtle disorientation performed by plate glass and plastic tables, by automatic doors sighing open into clean cafeterias. Deeper than the changes wrought by student debt or by the relentless, soporific marketing. The buildings themselves. The strange, palpable sense I can’t seem to shake – that here on campus might be the hardest of all places to speak honestly about what’s happening, let alone act upon it.
Dreams we don’t want to see
A writer friend turns to me in a dream, brings her face close to mine and asks a question. What I want to know is, what are you going to do about it? We’re at a Falmouth community centre watching a group of young people who’ve just returned from a year-long pilgrimage. They’ve gathered into a circle, arms laced around each other’s shoulders, humming something about trust. A strange ecstasy coming off them. The long journey they’ve taken together. The bond it’s forged between them.
A day or two after the dream I find myself back in the seminar room where the magnitude of biospheric collapse first laid hold of me. It was here that we used to gather, from the summer of 2009, for the Art & Environment Wednesday film. Soil, oceans, oil; forests, insects, oil; water, wildlife, oil. After each new instalment we’d circle chairs for reflection and discussion. ‘The end of the world prayer circle’ I began to call it, though I didn’t generally say this aloud. Reading those students’ subsequent dissertations, what I met, over and over, was an aching struggle with futility. What am I supposed to do about all this? Here is my art, I hope you like it. I don’t know what to do.
I check myself. Recall lives changed and charged by the conversations in this room, by the choices and practices fostered here. Clearly I’m an unreliable witness. Whatever others went on to make of all this, it was I who began a long slide into paralysed overwhelm as I sat here week after week. An overwhelm which I’ve been attempting to negotiate ever since.
Here I am again, then, still climbing out of that hole. This time, hosting a Nonviolent Direct Action training for Just Stop Oil. There’s about 30 of us assembled for the training and what first strikes me, after three years’ work with XR, is how many younger faces are here. We’ve come to rehearse what it means to meet hostility with disciplined, nonviolent calm. We use our bodies to observe the difference between being violent, not being violent, and practising assertive nonviolence. Then it’s time for the main purpose for our having gathered here in person. Role play. One of our trainers, Sarah, calls our half of the room to step outside for a minute. She gathers us into a circle as we prepare to re-enter and face our peers’ simulated rage. Our improvised road-block team closes in with Sarah, arms lacing around each other’s shoulders. She invites us to repeat with her: I trust you. I trust you.
A few more weeks slip past. Now I’m stuck to one screen or another, watching wave after wave of twenty-somethings clambering on top of fuel tankers, lodging themselves high up in refinery pipework, tunnelling under terminal access roads – and everywhere they go, it seems, glueing themselves on to things. Just Stop Oil. I listen to them explaining why they’re up here, down here, in here. Recognise one – Orla Murphy, a 20-year-old Irish woman who joined us here at Falmouth University in 2020 to speak about civil resistance and sustainability. Who went on, the following week, to spend 35 days in an Irish prison refusing bail conditions, as she stood by her own nonviolent action at Dublin’s Ministry of Agriculture. No More Empty Promises. Orla’s one of those you don’t easily forget.
What does response-ability look like, faced with our enmeshment in a slow-motion global genocide? Is speaking congruently to accelerating mass extinction possible within a debt-fuelled university system hoovering up school leavers with bright dreams of their ‘graduate futures’? Perhaps there are some conversations whose tools for thought necessarily include bare palms and superglue, disrupted courts, flooded prisons. Conversations that can only happen in a particular kind of context, and company.
The animals are dying. Mukutsawa Montahuano, a Sápara woman living in the Amazon rainforest, speaks to Abbott of being visited by unwelcome dreams – dreams we don’t want to see – that know and name approaching trouble long before it manifests to our daylight minds.
I think I get it. But months after that NVDA training, it seems the dream’s not quite done with me. Somehow its most obvious face has even now escaped my notice. How does the mind do that? Is my not seeing the dream part of the predicament it presents me with, or an obscure reaction to it? If those two are even different. Either way, it’s only watching Orla and her friends these many weeks later that I suddenly recognise my writer friend’s question, and stop what I’m doing – realising where I’ve heard it before.
‘To make peace with the grief, but not give up’
There was a game we used to play sometimes in those Art & Environment film circles back in 2009: a thought experiment begun from any one of the weekly trawls through ecocide. Why does this matter? And when the question leads inexorably to death, loss and ruin – keep asking, we’re not there yet. So, why does this matter? When we follow why all the way down, what we arrive at is neither terror nor despair, but love.
And what of numbness, the blanked-out heart? If we find our hearts fainting before the size of the beast, perhaps our best call now is to abandon any lingering hope of reading or talking or feeling our way through this, and to let our feet take over from here. To learn to think with our feet.
Magnitude, again: we listen to one of Saille’s final letters as we watch her beginning her day. She’s passed over a threshold, and what remains is simply to savour each passing hour. This letter is not about fighting, it’s about living in death’s full immanence with no need to hide from what’s coming. The camera imagines Saille moving slowly around her cabin as she brews her morning tea – one of the small rituals that keep me steady.
Small rituals. Saille’s letter offers about as good a reply to that second question as any I can find. A name for what’s left to us – will always be left to us – in the face of biospheric collapse: to hold each other steady by turning to meet systemic violence, even if nothing we now do will stop what’s coming. As if that were ever a requirement for choosing to care. To ground ourselves in resisting that violence wherever we meet it, as the wind gets up behind us. To make peace with the grief. And not give up.
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