Remembrance, loss and gaslighting

Kauai O-o, Moho braccatus, collected 10 September 1898, Kauai Island, Hawaii, CC BY 4.0. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (OR.009994)

Climate Psychology Alliance researcher Caroline Hickman joined us for Borrowed Time’s final session along with with Falmouth University Pagan Chaplain Zoe Young, in an open conversation about the love, longing and loss we may struggle to feel as we turn to remember lost species. Adapted from the book Borrowed Time: on death, dying and change, 2022; video available here.

Caroline’s been working for many years as a depth psychologist with an ecological awareness whilst researching children & young people’s emotional responses to the climate and biodiversity crisis globally. She brought these children’s narratives of loss to our conversation, reflecting on their awareness of their own vulnerability and that of the others with whom we are living through these troubled times. Many of these young people find themselves born and growing up in the darkening shadow of ecological collapse. For them ‘it is personal, what happens to the animals is happening to me too’.

MO: Welcome, everyone. You’ll probably know that we’re meeting today on the 10th Remembrance Day for Lost Species. Before I introduce our guests for the evening, we’re grateful to an 18-year-old musician called Rob Harrison and a mutual friend and collaborator, the artist Amanda Brown. Together they’ve made this three-minute sound piece especially for today, our final Borrowed Time gathering: Requiem for Lost Species. I’m also delighted to be joined tonight by my colleague and friend Zoe Young, who’s Falmouth University’s pagan chaplain. Zoe and I have many common interests in welcoming Caroline here tonight.

ZY: Thank you Mat. I don’t know if I can do that any better than those songs that we just heard. So anyway, if you can’t see me I am a smallish female in glasses, have a candle beside me and a small sculpture made for a project called to the Ends of the Earth, made from things washed up by the beach, and I’m in the southwest of England in the old nation of Kernow. And I would like us to remember that we are just the present skin of this planet. We are the present incarnation of the carbon-based life with the water, the air, the earth. The same as the dinosaurs, the same as the anaerobic bacteria. Our deep deep ancestors have all moved, crawled, danced, flown, swum around this planet before us. So without the loss of species there would be no mammals, we would not have arisen. Our ancestors made it through the last five mass extinctions. This is just the way of life. So the way of death is embodied within the way of life. And I’d like to acknowledge those who have walked before us, and these lands of Kernow here at Falmouth, the mouth of the river at this southwestern end of the island, where the initiative is swimming. And welcome. Thank you.

MO: There are many people here for whom Caroline’s work has been deeply helpful these past two years. And as we were just saying to Caroline, the last time we spoke on screen was immediately before the pandemic. Caroline came to join a few of us at Falmouth, and that event really was the seed of this conversation. In ending Borrowed Time back here at Falmouth, we’re also coming full circle: it was here that Dougald Hine gave the first of our Borrowed Time talks in summer 2019: Negotiating the Surrender.

Before we start I want to mention a common concern that Zoe and I noticed we both arrive with. It’s one of the reasons we’re particularly pleased to be ending Borrowed Time with this talk from Caroline, who’s work involves speaking with and listening to the young. For both Zoe and me, to see neoliberal universities still refusing to admit the scale and immediacy of the ecological crisis then offer ‘ecological anxiety training’ to their students, feels akin to witnessing a new form of intergenerational gaslighting. So we’d like to bring this question of climate gaslighting to our conversation with Caroline.

I promised Caroline I wouldn’t do a formal bio, but I really valued the short text she gave us to situate this conversation. So I’ll just read that, after introducing her simply as Caroline Hickman, a Depth Psychologist closely associated with the Climate Psychology Alliance.

As more of us turn to face the increasingly painful, hard to imagine truths of the climate and biodiversity crisis, we can find ourselves in deep water, struggling with broken or numb hearts. We need shared spaces in which to call together the obscure hurt and sadness, spaces in which we can feel the earth under our feet, and listen to the grief and longing that surrounds us. Grief for who and what we have lost already, and what we are losing now, and will in the future. And remembering them, we can perhaps be reminded that we are, as Donna Haraway puts it, ‘mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings’.

I’m sure I speak for all of you in welcoming Caroline. So over to you, Caroline, lovely to have you with us.

CH: Thank you so much, Mat. Thank you for that. And Zoe, for that beautiful start to this evening.

That last remaining male [Kauai O-o] bird calling for his mate nearly got me, I have to say … calling into the emptiness …

I think what I’m doing at the moment is trying to help without patronising the voices of children and young people to be heard, when they often feel, I think, that they’re calling into the emptiness. And to try and help us bear them.

I’ve got to describe myself: I’ve just turned 60. I have very white hair. I’m sitting in front of a very messy bookcase, which when I realised I was going to introduce this verbally to create a visual picture as well, I realised that some of the significant objects behind me on the bookcase are images of loss. There’s a photograph of my father, who died two years ago, and myself when I was two or three years old near an oak tree, and I still think of oak trees as representing my father. So that photograph is behind me. There are images from my sister, from my family, as well as lots of books in this slightly darkened room — much else is out of sight. There are more green plants than probably should be fitted into a single room, trying to bring the outside in constantly.

So to the voices of children and young people alongside the other mortal critters — that’s Donna Haraway’s description of us — trying to help them have their voices heard. And thinking about grief means to bear, and bearing the sound of these children’s voices. It can be very hard, and grief and loss resists being pinned down. It resists being named. I felt the beautiful recording just now resonated with loss and grief, but didn’t specifically name it.

Recently I’ve been trying to pin it down. I’ll tell you why. It’s not my natural habitat at all. But I’ve been trying to pin it down because I don’t think the stories always get through to everybody. I’m gonna take a leap and think they are likely to get through to those of us who are here this evening. But they don’t necessarily get through to everybody. So I wanted to try and communicate about this distress of children and young people facing the climate and ecolog- ical crisis, to other people who could not hear their stories, but might hear numbers.

So I’m going to start with some numbers. Which as I said, is not my natural habitat. And then I’m going to come to the stories and the voices of children and young people. And just to clarify, talking with children and young people globally about the climate and ecological crisis, I’ve been the one learning over the years. For them, it has very, very little to do with environmental destruction and loss. Of course, there’s grief and pain and despair and frustration and anger about that. But what makes it worse is the failure of adults to understand. The failure of people in power to listen and to hear what they’re saying, and take action. The failure to take that seriously. One of the only ways to try and impact those groups is with numbers to quantify this. And these are not just numbers, these are children speaking, but I’m going to give you some numbers.

We conducted a piece of research with 10,000 – myself an amazing group of colleagues – 10,000 children and young people. in spring of this year. This was 1,000 children and young people in each of these countries: Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, the Philippines, the UK and the US. We asked them lots of questions. We asked them how they felt, what they thought about the ecological crisis, how it impacted on their daily lives. And we looked for correlation with government action and inaction.

I’m not going to go through lots of figures, but I want to just give a few. Over half of these children and young people polled — 10,000 children, young people — over half told us that they thought humanity was doomed. This is 56% worldwide, 51% In the UK, and 73% in the Philippines. We asked them whether they thought the future was frightening: 75% of these children and young people in the world — so this is a representative sample — 75% told us the future was frightening for them. 73% in the UK, 92% in the Philippines. We asked them whether they thought people had failed to take care of the planet: 83% in the world, 80% In the UK, 92% in the Philippines.

What are we doing to those children and young people throughout the world, but especially in the Philippines? And if those are terrible, there’s one last number I’m going to give you, which is even worse: 48% of these children and young people told us that they’d been dismissed or belittled or told to shut up when they tried to talk about how they felt about climate change. So nearly half, when they tried to express this distress or this fear or these thoughts about the future, were silenced by us, by people. That’s not okay is it? That will change tonight.

So those are the numbers. Now I want to give you the stories. Because in my view children, young people, are being born into grief around climate change. One of the most impactful conversations I had in recent years was with two young women who were midwives, and they were telling me that they couldn’t help but cry as they handed babies over to joyful new parents. They were torn with the joy and the love, wonder and beauty in the celebration of a new birth. And a baby, much loved, much wanted, which was there…they held this at the same time as feeling this enormous grief, the grief of the loss of the ideal of the desired-for future, the naive optimism, and the painful awareness of what that child has been born into.

And it’s not about collapsing into ‘it’s all grief and horror and loss’, or ‘it’s all wonderful and joyful’. It’s that tension of holding both, the despair and the joy at the same time. And this is what I think children and young people – I know I’m generalising, so forgive me for that – this is what I feel that they’re holding and embodying a lot of the time.

A 10-year-old, a few years ago, got really cross with me. I’m so glad he did, really, because he really got me to see something. He said, “No, Caroline, you don’t get it.” He said “You think you understand, yourself, but you don’t.” He said, “You (meaning me) grew up thinking that polar bears would be there forever. I’ve grown up knowing that they will go extinct.” He said “I’ve never had a day of my life where I’ve not known. The day I learnt about what a polar bear was, I also learned to lose them, to say goodbye to them.”

So you have again, that joy, and connection and beauty and birth and learning and curiosity about the world, juxtaposed with the grief and the loss. They are inseparable for these children. That was a child in the UK. Children in low-lying Pacific nations: Nigeria, Bangladesh, the Maldives. They’re living with this daily now. It’s already too late. Even if you managed zero carbon emissions tomorrow, which we’re not managing to do, it is still too late for the Maldives, it will be too late for Vanuatu. Because the amount of carbon in the atmosphere means sea levels will continue to rise. We have to find a way to bear that. And the people living there have to find a way to bear that and live with that. It’s a living loss, whilst still loving that beautiful country.

A 14-year-old in the Maldives said to me: “We saw online that people in Iceland had a funeral for a glacier. This is a beautiful ritual, but we’re going to be underwater soon. Who’s going to have a funeral for us?” Another child said to me in the Maldives, he said “Climate change is like Sonos in The Avengers Endgame, whose ideology is to kill off half the half the world. So half can thrive, the other half must be killed off.” So there’s this, not just living with the grief.

There’s also this betrayal and abandonment and the knowledge, the conscious knowledge. These children that were saying this to me in the Maldives, they were calm, they were composed, they were reconciled. They understood this, that this was the decision the world was making: that there was a conscious choice about this, that betrayal and abandonment. So many children talk to me about what it’s like to live today as a child through their relationship with the other, with the other mortal critters, the animals. We encourage children in the West to develop empathy and relationships by relationship with animals — you know, we take them on bear hunts, we talk to them about rabbits loving other rabbits, we teach about love through these relationships. So it shouldn’t really confuse us that children and young people are feeling that pain and that grief of the even more silenced voices of the other critters. And feeling it as personal. And feeling that injustice and that unfairness on behalf of these animals, because they share that innocence. They share that sense of betrayal that we’re not saving them, we’re not protecting them, we’re not thinking about them. And they’re very clear that their distress is not just about environmental destruction, it’s about the fact that adults are not stepping in, not understanding, not listening, and not saving them.

What I say to them — which is, to some extent, me trying to help them feel better and myself — but I hope isn’t taking away their pain, not just being alongside them with that pain — is I say, well, actually, you only feel this because you care. And, actually, you shouldn’t be ashamed of caring, you should feel proud of the fact you care. Because it’s a good thing to care about this. So instead of getting anxious about your anxiety, or distressed about this, let’s be proud of this. And let’s, you know, stretch your heart, stretch your courage and feel good about the fact that this hurts, but let’s share that hurt, so you’re not on your own with it.

I think that’s what we need to be doing, trying to communicate that somehow. Another child said to me in the Maldives, he said, “I’m really sad about climate change. My friends are dying”. And he paused. And he looked at me and he said, “My friends, the fish are dying”. Often for children and young people that you know, they are their friends. They’re not just this other that we consume, or protect or save or nurture, or idealise in that sense of belonging in that vulnerability, I think in that innocence.

So that’s what I wanted to bring here this evening. I’m really so honoured to be here this evening having this conversation with you. And thank you for making space for these children’s voices, and even in this loss, the speaking of this loss, I think there is beauty, and there’s beauty in that understanding. And something soulful I hope remains that’s important in hearing those children’s voices. Thank you.

MO: Such a powerful place to bring us round to – to affirm that grief, to affirm that you shouldn’t be ashamed of it, you should be proud of it, because it shows you care. Thank you from all of us, Caroline, and to you too Zoe – and to all those who’ve been involved in helping this happen this evening, thank you.

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