Liz Jensen gave this speech at the XR event Forfattere gør oprør, which was held in front of Danmarks Radio (DR), the national broadcaster, on the afternoon of 18 September 2020.
Grief can do two things. It can shrink your soul – or it can expand it.
Most of us here know grief. And if we don’t yet, we will. It’s an inevitable part of the human journey, and the price we pay for love. As someone wise once said: “It hurts as much as it’s worth.”
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five phases of grief – denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance – apply to climate grief as well as personal grief. None of us in Extinction Rebellion is in the business of acceptance. But recently Kubler Ross’ colleague David Kessler has suggested a sixth phase of grief, which I think can inspire us, no matter where our pain lies:
How do we find meaning in all we have lost, and all we are losing, and all we stand to lose? As someone recently bereaved, I have a radical suggestion: ask the dead.
This year and last, as in all the years since this fight began, the ecological movement lost many of its most committed champions. Thousands of forest guardians in Amazonia put their lives at risk on a daily basis. Like the indigenous leader Paulo Paulino Guajajara, murdered in cold blood for defending the lungs of the planet.
Or the environmental lobbyist Polly Higgins, who to her last breath campaigned to make Ecocide a punishable crime. Earth, she said, must be seen “not as exploitable property but as a living organism.” Ecocide is not just a crime against humanity, Nature, and future generations, “but most importantly, it’s a crime against peace.”
Last month, the renowned glaciologist Konrad Steffen fell into a crevasse on the Greenland ice sheet – a crevasse caused by the very phenomenon he was studying: the catastrophic warming of Arctic ice.
Predicting a global sea level rise of 5 meters in the lifetime of any baby born today, he said: “I can say for certain that we need to change. I can’t tell you how to change. I can only remind you to think of this place, our world. Think of its significance, its beauty. And then make your contribution, big or small, to create a difference.”
Another life cut brutally short was my beloved son’s.
Raphael Coleman, known in XR as Iggy Fox, had already made his mark as a promising wildlife biologist and activist. He collapsed and died of sudden heart failure while researching a film about the all-female anti-poaching groups in Africa: local women who risk their lives protecting endangered species from poachers and the million-dollar trafficking industry that pays them.
The Earth’s cause was his cause – so there is solace (and yes, meaning) in knowing that the heart that stopped beating at the age of 25, was a committed one.
After vandalising the Brazilian Embassy in London in protest at Bolsonaro’s destruction of the Amazon he wrote: “I don’t want to go to prison, but I’ll face whatever I need to. Knowing the science, I have no choice but to tell the truth, and stick to my morals in the face of that truth. I won’t stand by and watch the world burn.”
Paulo Paulino Guajajara, Polly Higgins, Konrad Steffensen and Iggy Fox never met but they had one thing in common: their lives had meaning. They all felt deep grief, and rage, too, over the disappearance of all they cherished: ice, insects, birds, landscapes, shores, mammals, breathable air, coral reefs, healthy oceans, and a future for the coming generations.
But this grief didn’t overwhelm them. They all knew that if they didn’t speak out they would have failed to obey the most fundamental command all animals feel in their blood: protect your home.
Hours after Raphael died, in a state of shock, I wrote him a letter. Here’s how it starts:
Raph, You were a force of nature, and now you are one with that force : you are water, you are chlorophyll, you are moss on a stone, a bird’s feather, a wolf’s paw print, an oak tree, a praying mantis, a stingray, a garden squirrel. You are the sky and the sea and the rainforests and the mountains and the marshes and the deserts and all the landscapes you ever knew and loved.
You knew heaven was right here on Earth. You saw it clearly and you helped others see it.
You knew that sadness and grief are part of the human cycle and that nobody is immune. And that Homo sapiens is amazing and inventive and joyful as well as selfish and destructive. And that our natural urge to do the right thing is what we must hang on to – and what must triumph – if our civilization is to remain decent and our world worth living in.
Afterwards, someone suggested that I try to imagine his reply. So here it is:
Mama, keep on. Keep demanding justice for the wildlife, ecosystems and the people who are already suffering so deeply. Have courage.
Don’t just hope for a better future.
Let grief expand your spirit, and act on what you feel.
Do it in the name of our home.
In the name of Earth.
Liz Jensen’s first work of eco-fiction was Ark Baby (1998), a comic romp about evolution, while her two most recent thrillers, The Rapture (2010) and The Uninvited (2012), are inspired by the climate emergency. Liz has lived in Copenhagen since 2013 but travels regularly to Britain by train for XR and other work. She loves good jokes and high-quality fake meat. Ply her with any one of these and she is yours.
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