Being human in the age of loss

Being human in the age of loss

Being human in the age of loss

An essay by Xandra van der Eijk

Essay commissioned by MU Hybrid Art House for the exhibition
‘Polarities: the psychology and politics of being ecological’


The first time I encountered overwhelming feelings of sadness, mixed with powerlessness and anger related to something other than human loss I was watching the documentary Chasing Coral. Some months earlier I was traveling in Indonesia, where I happily explored the vibrant underwater world so completely alien to me. Since my return, I had been wanting to keep the precious encounters to myself. I could revisit the moment eternally, in its perfect and magical state and I savored that special feeling of having been allowed to peek inside another universe. But the truth was I hadn’t been allowed into it, I had imposed. So eventually I watched the documentary and opened myself up to all other kinds of truths about corals. 

The documentary was tear-jerking, for sure. But the actual emotional response happened when I connected the documentary to one of my most valued encounters in Indonesia. I had documented and observed a group of brightly shining, purple fluorescent corals, so remarkable and magical, it outshined all other specimens. The documentary explained that what I had seen and taken for a healthy, growing organism, was actually a living being in crisis. Because of rising seawater temperatures, corals bleach, which basically means they die. Just before the bleaching happens the coral shines its brightest light, next spewing out the algae on which it depends on symbiosis. My treasured memory and beacon of hope transformed into a beacon of despair. My heart broke, and I instantly decided to become an activist, leave my current life behind and fight until death — for corals. Soon I realized what a terrible inconvenience this would be to me, and the voices in my mind I began confronting all the feelings that first consumed me. What would change, even if I did dedicate my life? And why should I be the person to take on such a challenge — after all, I don’t even live near corals. If anything I would worsen the situation because I would be traveling and these distances mean flying. And surely I am too old to get a proper education on corals to do anything remotely significant in that field (because of course, I should be successful). 

Fast forward a year or so, on a random day, exploring the internet, I found myself in the same situation again when watching an ecological disaster unfold in real- time. Nothing to do with corals this time, but with algae bloom on the coast of Florida basically killing off all the sea life for which it is famous. The internet made me an observer of an event happening thousands of miles away, and I cried about it with the same intensity as when I watched that coral die in the documentary. But the big difference was that I was not alone: the live feed showed many more people were observing the scale of mass-starvation with all its consequences unfold, and hundreds of people were commenting and sharing their emotions online. For a brief moment I was relieved of my heavy heart as I started to see a little light at the end of a very dark tunnel: emotions are human, they are the core driving force behind most of our behaviors; a great deal of people can unite in their emotion over the current ecological crises. 

Since then others have drawn the same conclusion from experience as I have, and terms as ecological grief and eco-anxiety have started to emerge. For myself, I define ecological grief as the “grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change”. [1] The cold and somewhat distant description comforts me, as it allows me once more to compartmentalize these feelings that are so overwhelming — be it now of despair rather than of joy. It allows me to think out loud about that brief spark of hope: What if the shared emotional experience of ecological grief allows us to bridge the polarities of our age? 

Mental health effects of our new reality 

Scientists pushing to name the current era the Anthropocene, claim it is a unique and unprecedented age in the history of the earth. Describing first and foremost how the human species has become a geological force, the term Anthropocene as coined by Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen takes the manufacturing of hazardous chemical compounds, land-use changes, deforestation and fossil fuel burning as the reasons for claiming that humans are outcompeting and dominating natural processes.[2]
This definition is problematic because it clearly separates humans from nature, a phenomenon that the social sciences describe as the nature-culture divide [3]. It also encourages the way of modernist thinking to which the planet owes all its major ecological problems in the first place. On the other hand, using the term Anthropocene to describe the impact humankind has on the planet might help to open up the conversation on responsibility and motivate people to change. Left or right, proposing to name an epoch after humans first raises the question: What does it mean to be human? 

I would argue that to be human is to be an emotional being. An identifiable physiological pattern underlies human behaviors, translating to what I will call feelings. They primarily serve the purpose of survival as part of evolutionary development. The way meaning is attributed to these feelings is (at least in part) dependent on a person’s specific experience and cultural construct. But even though it is hard to completely compare the way humans feel, there is a grey area full of recognizable emotions through which it is possible to relate to each other and the world. According to philosopher Stephan Asma, emotional consciousness can be thought of in the way an archeologist thinks about layers of sedimentary strata.[4] Looking at the most ancient of layers within emotional evolution, it becomes clear that humans are primarily driven to go out into the environment for the exploitation of resources. Not being able to meet the most basic requirements for living, such as water or food, the brain responds on a chemical level to change the circumstances and rewards with a feeling of satisfaction in the form of a return to homeostasis— the state in which the body reaches a stable equilibrium. In other words: this process is comparable to feeling comfortable. If this primal emotional response is transposed to the concept of the Anthropocene, it is not such a stretch to see the human species as animals in a constant state of stress, trying to obsessively gather resources in order to be rewarded with the state of homeostasis. Could it be that this evolution-driven construct contributes at least to some extent to the human need for (over)consumption?
If so, it would result in a self-destructive feedback loop that is hard to get out of. Exercising this thought a bit further by applying it to a modern-day societal level, it is easy to imagine that this faulty feedback loop causes disastrous ecological side-effects. As consumption increases, so do the side-effects, leading to more stressful situations, leading to a continuous effort to reach a state of homeostasis — the loop has now become a spiral. 

Assuming this underlying pattern works as proposed, a whole range of emotions are ignited in the process. Powerlessness, anxiety, guilt, sadness, anger, melancholy and longing all come to pass, and they happen to all be linked to the same feeling: grief. A somewhat puzzling phenomenon, grief does not carry any evolutionary benefit in itself. It is mostly seen as the feeling resulting from bereavement (loss) and is closely entangled with engagement. The act of engaging means so much as having a relationship — a bond that primarily forges between humans, but also between humans and other beings, or things, or the environment. If we are for some reason separated from that with which we formed a bond, our body produces stress hormones. The first behavioral response is an attempt to remedy the situation: to search for the lost someone or something, to replace, to experience the illusion that whatever is lost is nearby or present. However when it turns out that the source of grief cannot be remedied, such as in the event of a death, there is nothing else to do for the body but to move through that previously mentioned range of emotions. 

Coping with a certain amount of loss and grief is manageable and an important part of the circle of life: death is natural, time passes, restorative psychological processes take place. But with the intensity and frequency that societal and ecological events are taking place in the 21st century, feelings of grief are experienced daily, resulting in stress, resulting in that feedback loop as evolution still needs to catch up. Writer Nathaniel Popkin was one of the first to describe this constant state of grief. Listing many ecological things lost in 2017, he even takes the concept one step further: identifying grief over loss that is known to come, a kind of anticipatory grief. In his article in the New York Times he therefore quite strikingly names our time ‘The Age of Loss’. [5]

The physicality of loss 

Since the article appeared in 2017, the number of things lost have only increased, and at a lightning speed. The evidence that the sixth mass extinction is currently happening, eating away at the very roots of human existence, is so tangible that it is noticeable in everyday life. In an effort to comprehend the changes happening in this age, massive data collections are formed and interpreted, aided by technology in the fight against complexity. But, as philosopher Timothy Morton puts it, this creates an endless stream of ‘factoids’, pieces of information that tell something about a fact, but are not the fact itself.[6] Despite all efforts, there will always be a gap between the fact, the data and you, or in this case the event, the data and you — and it will only grow bigger with every interpretation. To understand this, is also to understand the polarity between the truth of scientifically proven information, and the (lack of) willingness to accept it as such within human society. This changes as soon as tangibility comes into play: after all, it is hard to deny the physical experience of, let’s say, no more insects hitting the car window. A physical experience allows for an emotional interpretation of facts, which is then considered a truth. 

These emotional truths can also be seen as engagements or relationships with reality. The physicality of these relationships shape individual or personal truths on which feelings are based. From sounds and smells in the womb to the first motherly embrace — a truth-feeling of our surroundings is constructed from the moment of conception. It defines inner values, future motives, a sense of belonging and home. As time passes the truth-feeling broadens and relationships are formed with family, friends, animals, things, as well as with the geographic, political and economic environment. A cultural identity is shaped, and it is closely intertwined with the multidimensional landscape. 

This sense of identity, or better said this relationship with reality, is very strong. Not just from within, but also because an entire social construct and way of living together is built on it. Relationships upon relationships, endless entanglement. Yet being alive in this age damages exactly this relationship, to an extent that it can be impossible to maintain. The character of events happening, such as floods, bushfires, retreating ice or mining destruction cause an abrupt and absolute disruption; much like a death would, and with it comes the feeling of grief. From slight uncomfortableness to absolute vulnerability, from powerlessness to anger and complete displacement, the grief arises from losing a sense of place and therefore losing a sense of self. It happens through a physical experience and it is also in itself a physical experience. Homeostasis is out of reach, and will be for the foreseeable future. 

The right to being 

To experience the intense grief of losing a sense of self is obviously first and foremost an individual process with an individual emotional trajectory. Yet because the nature of the cause lies within environmental destruction, which affects many individuals at the same time, combined with the already universally recognizable characteristics of grief, it is also a universal experience of being. The idea that homeostasis is something that a person is evolutionary entitled to, as if it were a human right, is both a behavioral driver as well as a faulty thought: is not every being and thing entitled to their own version of homeostasis, and do they not have equal rights to be in that state? 

With current dire perspectives on human survival it is time to explore the multitude of truths and needs of homeostasis, both amongst the human species as well as that of other beings and things on which we depend. Because as long as the future is uncertain, there is hope for an homeostasis can be envisioned — be it a constructed one which at the very least understands a diversity of needs. This would however require a rebellion against human nature. It would require a rational decision to end the endless feedback loop. 

To do so, it is vital to understand both the useful and problematic nature of another layer in the strata of emotional being, that of empathy. It describes the ability to share and understand another’s feelings, which is essential when negotiating a multitude of rights. However, empathy has specifically evolved to respond to a situation ‘right here, right now’. In other words: to be empathic, there has to be an individual other to relate to. If it is not possible to experience the other suffering, it is very hard to relate to them. “Such compassion collapse stymies climate action”, writes Jamil Zaki, author of ‘The War For Kindness: building empathy in a fractured world’. “Environmental damage has already produced enormous suffering, particularly in the global south. But in the global north, where most carbon emissions are produced, these victims are distant statistics who garner little empathy”. [7] 

What then to make of the human emotional toolbox, with which the injustices need to be addressed and the uncertain future is to be crafted? As Mapuche philosopher Milton Almonacid said: “We should hack ourselves, in order to hack the system”.[8] 

Bridging emotional polarities 

Since evolution is not progressing fast enough to secure human survival, rational decisions need to be made to produce counterintuitive behavior. This is one of many polarities with which the body has a hard time to cope. As another example, empathy is designed to understand and feel another’s feelings, yet the quality is also used by the brain to further distinguish itself from the other. That what should bring closeness, at the same time divides. I believe there is hope found in experience. The human body is able to produce a type of ultimate truth through physicality. This is so strong, that if someone speaks from personal experience, they are considered much more believable than any scientific fact. It is very obvious that this truth can be misused for all kinds of purposes, even political ones, which feed the faulty feedback loop. But it can also be used in a much more positive way, to reach another dimension of empathy and understanding. A dimension in which another’s truth becomes your truth through experience, and even though that truth will always be different from the original, like a factoid, the body embraces it as its own and therefore brings intrinsic motivation for action - whether that is a shift in thinking, a consciousness or an actual thing to do. 

One of the major question of this age is how to facilitate and create the experiences needed to train empathic capabilities and ultimately, to bridge the polarities of our age. Not an easy task, as it means making tangible the suffering of entire ecosystems, species or groups of people for those who have not yet been subjected to environmental disaster. Its an engagement one would willingly have to enter into, both in facilitating the experience as well as being the experiencer. What luck then, that this is the age of loss, and that the best way to find a path to healing grief can be found in doing something. As the awareness about the cause of grief grows, so does the motivation to act differently from that cause. And perhaps this may be the ultimate way to be human in the Anthropocene: to ‘hack ourselves in order to hack the system’ in such a way, that naming the age after the human species becomes redundant. 

[1] Cunsolo, Ashlee; Ellis, Neville. “Hope and mourning in?the Anthropocene: Understanding ecological grief”. The Conversation.
[2] Crutzen P.J. (2006) The “Anthropocene”. In: Ehlers E., Krafft T. (eds) Earth System Science in the Anthropocene. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg
[3] Latour, B. (2017). Où atterrir : comment s’orienter en politique. Paris: La Découverte.
[4] Gabriel, S. A. R. (2019, November 25). United by feelings. Retrieved November 25, 2019, from human-culture-and- cognition-evolved-through- the-emotions
[5] Popkin, N. (2018, December 28). A Forest of Ancient Trees, Poisoned by Rising Seas. Retrieved November 20, 2019, from https://www. opinion/climate-change- sea-level-rise.html
[6] Morton, T. (2018). Being Ecological. UK: Penguin Books.
[7] Zaki, J. (2019, August 22). — The Washington Post. Retrieved November 25, 2019, from https://www. outlook/2019/08/22/ caring-about-tomorrow
[8] Post, E. (2019, November 27). Valley of the Possible —Reflections on its first Residency & Research Program. Retrieved November 27, 2019, from https://vimeo. com/373932529